Moral Facts and Opinions

Yet another moral philosopher (another religious one) makes a hash of morality. So I wanted to get this down as a summary of my position on how morality is nothing more than opinion elevated to nobility; a common man made special by simply calling him a lord or a bishop.

Before We Get To Moral Facts and Opinions

The is/ought barrier is baloney. Hume figured that out, but I can see how reading him makes it seem as though he endorses the barrier as a reality. But I read him as denouncing the foolish philosophers and theologians that see the boundary. I think he’s saying the boundary is illusory because there are no oughts that are distinct from ises – everything is ises. Of course I may have read Hume wrong, but then that only makes him wrong and he should have figured out that there are only ises.

Let’s start out with a summary of what happened to get us where we are today. This is necessary to get the modern day picture. If you are religious you probably don’t buy this modern day picture, but instead seem content to hold beliefs from a dim and ignorant time. If you’re an old school philosopher you might not buy it either. I’d be interested to know why; but so far any religious and philosophical counters to this following explanation, about our reality and our understanding of morality, have been full of errors.

It’s rather cryptic – as you’ll note by the use of the short hand ‘stuff’. But I think the meaning is plain enough. And this exists in other posts, but I’m repeating here for the context that’s required to avoid any special kind of dualism, gods and excuses for ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ morality.

  1. Humans as a species awoke to start thinking about stuff, about themselves and their world. This development is lost in history. The first we know about it now is the written history and the artefacts we have from the past, and the best early stuff we have starts with the Greeks. In a way, the lost distant history and the emergence of Greek philosophy is analogous to our individual personal awakening from infancy. We can’t remember much if anything at all about our early life before the ages of two and three, and then a scant few memories remain, some of which may be false memories we’ve adopted from later tales about our early life (we cannot tell), until, like the early Greek works, our parents show us crusty daubs of paint on crispy ageing paper. All we can tell now is that at some stage humans, as a species and as individuals, started to think about stuff.

  2. With little more to go on, humans played with their newly found minds, and invented gods to explain what couldn’t be explained. They also invented witches and all sorts of other creatures, material and non-material to explain away strange events – oh, and to blame people for bad stuff. I suppose this was a natural way to go. It seemed to be possible to invent stuff in the mind that had its own sort of existence, it’s own reality, and yet it couldn’t be touched by the physical world, by the senses. This was the creation of the primacy of thought as the key to understanding the whole of reality. Philosophy and religion were bedfellows, with our senses being able to tell us only some of reality, and not always reliably at that. A lot of the mental stuff wasn’t reliable either, but you couldn’t really test that – you sort of had to take it on faith. And we did.

  3. Not all thinkers fell for the supremacy of the mind. Empiricists of various kinds recognised the folly of some of the thought stuff. Conflicting beliefs seemed so easy to conjure up, and the only reality that smacked you in the face on a regular basis was the material world. It wasn’t as if many philosophers or theologians denied the existence of the material world and our sensory access to it. Their main difference was that they figured there was more; and even wanted there to be more, so much so that they really believed there was more, of other realms, gods, demons, angels. But, with so little understanding of the material world, and our part in it, the balance of power remained with the dualists, and the religious in particular.

  4. Eventually science got going. And then Darwin. And then the brain sciences, from psychology to neuroscience. And we started to get a better picture of what we were and are now. What were we? We started as simple empirical creatures, interacting with the world through physics and chemistry alone. And much of physics is chemistry and chemistry is physics at the molecular level, where the electromagnetic interaction of electrons around atoms with vast amounts of emptiness prevent atoms moving through each other. In small life forms, cells, the interaction is the physical boundary of the cell wall and the chemical transmission of information, food, energy – and information and food and energy are indistinguishable on these scales, they are just interactions of particle elements and molecules, and the exchange of energy.

  5. What are we now? Eventually multicellular creatures evolved variation in their cell types, to become organisms with multiple organs. And, for our purposes here, one distinct cell type is of interest: the neuron. A neuron is just another type of cell that specialises. It’s generally long, and transmits signals along its length – not by the conduction of electrons as in an electrical wire or electronic component, but as waves of ions crossing the boundary along the cell’s length, with each ion event triggering the next, like a Mexican Wave. The neuron can also grow extensions – synapses – to connect to other neurons, and other cell types in our peripheral nervous system. The connections are not direct cell-to-cell physical contact as much as gaps across which chemical signals can be transmitted. We are creatures with brains: a collection of interacting neurons.

  6. The remaining details of how neurons work is not important for now. What is important is this: there is little significant difference between peripheral neurons and brain neurons. The brain neurons are essentially ‘sensing’ and ‘activating’ each other just as the sense neurons connect to each other, to other tissues or to the neurons of the brain. Whatever other cell types and processes go on in brains, this seems to be the most significant feature: brain neurons are sensing and activating each other in such a complex way that the brain becomes aware of itself, even invents an abstract model of itself: me, my mind and I. We consider our peripheral neurons to be engaged in the empirical aspect of our epistemology while the brain neurons are engaged in the mental aspect, our reasoning. But since brain and peripheral neurons are all engaged in the same type of physical and chemical activity we are in fact totally empirical systems, and what we call the mind and its thinking and reasoning function is the outcome of a mass of empirical neurons working together. We were empirical beings all along! We are empirical beings!

Our mental lives are to a great extent full of illusions. The abstract self vanishes when looked at closely, or when the brain deteriorates. We know many of our optical illusions are not in fact tricks of the physics of optics but tricks that the brain plays on itself; or more graciously, the brain is fooled into to believing something is when it isn’t. There is zero evidence that an out of body experience is anything other than an illusion, and much evidence of it being an error – out of body illusions can be stimulated in the lab and the subject tested on the accuracy of what they think they are seeing from outside the body, and they are wrong. We invent gods, contradictory gods, and make awfully bad reasons for believing in them, and yet there is zero evidence of any god anywhere, ever, as far as we can tell.

In the sense laid out above it’s important to grasp that the categories we invent, the physical and the mental, the material and immaterial, even categories of the material such as the distinction between physics, chemistry, biology, are fairly arbitrary to the material matter that we are and that we interact with. When a bullet rips through my flesh we model it as a moving solid object deforming as it tears through flesh, but underlying this mayhem is the electromagnetic force that prevents the bullet passing straight through me with its atoms mostly missing my atoms in the vast spaces between tiny nuclei. When an asteroid impact hits the earth and results in atmospheric reactions that wipe out species, that’s chemistry and physics at work.

In this context we are material creatures in a material world, experiencing that world empirically through our epistemologically limited sense and brain neurons, co-opting our brain neurons to reasoning functions on the empirical data we collect.

This leaves us with some straight forward results. There is no evidence of anything other than the material world, the material universe. There is no evidence that we humans are anything but components of that material universe and not somehow distinct from it or transcendent beyond it. There is no evidence of a magical mind or soul that is distinct in kind from our material brain-body systems. There is no evidence of anything like a god from which we can derive something that might be a moral fact. There is nothing in the cosmos that reveals itself as something that might be a moral fact.

So, what are moral facts?

Moral Facts Are Opinions We Really Care About

There are no gods and no cosmologically available moral facts, that we have found.

Really. Show them.

Don’t just declare that your holy book tells you about God. That a holy book self-declares its own truth should be setting off big alarm bells in your epistemology. A liar writes a book that declares the liar is telling the truth? How would you distinguish a liar’s bible from a genuine bible? Evidence? Well, where’s this evidence? Will it lead me to Josephus, or will you use the reasoning of William Lane Craig, who will then lead me to Josephus and other nonsense? C. S. Lewis? Oh please. But by all means, let’s go down a few of those rabbit holes if you like.

Are you a non-theist moral facts person? Are your moral facts absolute, written in the cosmos? Where? What physical laws best model your moral facts?

If you’re still here, then this is what moral facts are …

Facts

We can take facts to be truths or near truths about the world, or something along those lines. That sounds a bit vague, and that’s because even the most solid facts we have are vague in detail if not in appearance. How do we establish facts? In one of two ways mainly, and often in some combination.

Inductive Evidence

Arguments from induction have a bad rep in philosophy, but that’s the fault of philosophy. Remember the primacy of thought, the supremacy of the mind that I mentioned earlier? That’s where this erroneous philosophical misjudgement comes from. The black swan argument has a lot to answer for.

I see only white swans. I confer with other people and they too see only white swans. We don’t presume we’ve seen all swans in the world, so we conclude, tentatively, perhaps confidently, but contingently, that all swans are white. We have induced, from several, maybe many, particulars to the general case that all swans are white. Fact: all swans are white.

But then someone tells us there are black swans in the southern hemisphere, and maybe brings back a pair to Europe! Oh no, our fact isn’t correct any more! What the hell happened?!

Induction worked, that’s what happened. We contingently concluded that all swans are white, based on the ones we’d seen. It was inductive: arguing from the particular evidence, contingently to the general case.

And now we adapt our argument and the result is a modified. Fact: all swans indigenous to Europe are white.

The basis of the inductive argument is simple:

  • Collect evidence
  • Form a contingent argument from the particular evidence collected to the general case
  • Declare the general case as a contingent fact
  • If conflicting evidence comes in, adapt the argument and the details of the fact – and if the new evidence makes the argument and the fact useless, abandon it

You will find that people like David Deutch will make a fuss about how bad induction is, that isn’t how science works; and many philosophers will tell you all about the ‘problem of induction’. They are talking bollocks, because there is no problem with induction unless you use it incorrectly – that is, if you expect it to prove anything beyond doubt. It doesn’t.

Induction is a contingent argument based on particular evidence in order to make some useful general statement about the world, and it’s adaptable, correctable. What could be more useful to human beings that are tiny creatures trying to understand the world the best we can with incomplete and fallible knowledge?

Deductive Reasoning

Here we come to the other side of the philosophical supremacy of mind screw up.

Deductive reasoning is based on logic. The binary stuff: 0/1, true/false, yes/no. Deductive arguments take a set of premises and using strict rules argue to some conclusion. That sounds pretty good. We can get from something we know and really reliably, absolutely, prove the conclusion, right? Wrong. That absolutely bit – that’s where it’s wrong.

A deductive argument is valid if the conclusion cannot be false if the premises are true. A sound argument produces a conclusion that is absolutely true if the argument is valid and the premises absolutely true.

That’s just fine, but there’s that absolutely again, but here it is more clear that the soundness of the argument depends on the absolute truth of the premises. In other words, the conclusion is contingent on the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises. This great deduction stuff is contingent after all. But our understanding of at least simple arguments is rock solid – if we can rely on logic at all.

The problem for deductive arguments sits squarely in the contingency of the premises. And so for any argument, we have to be able to prove its premises too, with another argument, and then that argument’s premises too, and on it goes back up the line of reasoning – all necessary for a sound argument and our ultimate conclusion we want to prove.

And so it all falls down. We cannot prove all premises in a chain of arguments. Somewhere along the line we rely on either a guess, some arbitrary decision, some assertions by definition, or an inductive argument from observation.

Some premises, in mathematics, for example, are called axioms. What are they? They are premises we take to be true, either because we have learned, inductively and deductively over a lot of work that they appear to be true, or because intuitively they seems to be true and we haven’t had good reason to reject them.

Intuition can sometimes be good. But what is intuition other than the physical brain having established some idea about what might be the case. We don’t know why a particular intuition exists – though in some cases psychology and neuroscience, and perhaps anthropology, can give us some ideas. But many intuitions are shown to be flat out wrong, so they are not arbiters of ready made truths. Will someone point this out to Alvin Plantinga – sensus divinitatis my arse – an intuition of having an intuition that becomes a presupposition that we have that intuition, that … LOL!.

What about scientific foundations? They are taken from observations about the world, and a few trial and error guesses, hypotheses, that someone then tests, and finds to be good enough.

Are there any absolute truths that we can use as premises? None that I know of. Really, none. There might be some we assume to be true because it really feels as though they should be true. But I bet in all cases it can easily be pointed out what guess or other arbitrary choice is being made, or how it’s based on some observations about the world.

In the end deduction is nothing more than a tool to get us from one set of contingent facts to another set in a reliable manner. The proof of deduction is localised to the argument and does not prove the premises; so its reach is limited.

And so always, we are empirical humans, observing the world, even empirically reasoning about it, since our brains are full of empirically operating neurons interacting to carry out reasoning processes. And all our knowledge so acquired is contingent.

Moral Facts

So, what about moral truths, are there no absolute moral truths? What about ‘it is wrong to kill‘, makes that an absolute moral truth, an objective moral fact? [Oh, no, objective, another of those weasel words we need to clear up. I’ll come back to that.] But, in the mean time, when it comes to the ways in which the term ‘objective moral fact/truth‘ is often used, no, there are none, they are all contingent, and when we look closer they are opinions.

Humans evolved to have the brains we have, to build the social structures we do, to have kids, and family. Our brains work using reason, now, but in many ways they are still very much like the brains of our animal relatives, subject to emotional stirrings, feelings that make us feel, that make us decide for no apparent rational reason – though we might rationalise our reasoning to fit our emotional decisions after the event.

When we get together and decide that killing each other is a bad idea we do that because we feel that. We feel it about ourselves, because we are survival machines – hey, who wants to be killed? We have evolved to have empathy for each other, and we have developed a theory of mind whereby we think that other people behaving like us think and feel like us and they don’t want to be killed either.

This isn’t necessarily something that we all figure out in some rational instant. It’s what grows on us personally, and what we have learned through our cultural past and which is passed on to us in turn through our moral systems.

That cultures have tended to invent gods as authority figures to authorise these rules seems obvious now. We are varied humans, and the killing and not killing business wasn’t a hard and fast evolved feeling, so some of us had more of the not killing while some had more of the killing. It makes things a lot easier if you invent a god that tells us we should not kill. It’s also handy if that god tells us under what convenient circumstances it’s good to kill; and that makes for a very handy self-sustaining system of bullshit if that god is supposed to authorise the killing of people that don’t believe in that god and his non-killing rules.

It’s fairly easy to see how many conflicting religions can invent the characters of their own gods for the sustenance of those religions and the cultures that they bind together. It’s fairly easy to see that within the context of some general feelings about killing, different cultures can come to enhance their morality giving god stories to suit their own particular circumstances, and acquire some seriously dumb arbitrary moral rules along the way.

It’s fairly easy to see that without evidence for these gods that the moral facts attributed to them are nothing of the sort.

All human moral facts are based on opinions humans have about how other humans should behave, and if maintaining such benefits to us necessitates agreeing that we must be mutually subject to these rules, then that’s fine. We all get along by sharing some moral opinions.

But I like strawberry and you like chocolate, so who is right? If moral opinions are just like that, aren’t they easily argued against? Doesn’t it mean someone can just say, “Sorry, in my opinion killing is good, so I’m going to kill you.”

Yes it does.

That’s precisely the problem with morality. It is all about opinions just like that. But the thing is, many if not most of us are survival machines, and we like an easy life, so most of us are prepared to submit to the general opinion that killing is bad.

In my opinion, formed from my personal emotional feelings about my survival, the survival of my children and parents, the survival of my friends, my protective society, killing is always bad news, if not for me then for someone in my society, and I can empathise with that. That’s why killing is bad. It’s a feeling, an emotion, a reasoned argument as to why we all should not kill – an opinion based on all that, such that in my opinion killing is wrong.

I have invented an ought as an emotionally charged is.

What about eating pork? Nope. That does nothing for me. But my Jewish and Islamic friends feel otherwise. Some might pass it off as a cultural requirement rather than a moral proscription, and that is exactly what it is; but for many it’s an opinion elevated into a moral fact, for them.

So, here we have two moral facts that have been elevated from mere opinion: not killing and not eating pork. One is more widespread in its acceptance than the other. The latter seems more obviously a relative moral fact, more like an opinion. To may Jews and Muslims the avoidance of pork is more than an opinion, it is a moral fact.

Moral relativism! But this is descriptive moral relativism rather than prescriptive moral relativism.

I can observe and describe a relative matter of moral fact: some people think eating pork is good, some think it is wrong. But, I do not subscribe to an absolute unbridled prescriptive moral relativism. I would suggest and argue that Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is morally wrong. That is an opinion of mine based on my observations of reports of how harmful it is, and given my low opinion of the moral merits claimed of it, I feel I can argue that my moral opinion is a worthy one.

A moral fact is only an opinion given some extra emotional status, sometimes backed up by arguments from evidence, sometimes backed up by the belief in some imagined god that sanctions the moral fact. But in the latter case the claim that there is a god is itself based an opinion, so there we have an opinion that there’s a god and an opinion that this god dictates some moral facts – but that’s opinion nonetheless.

That most humans feel very strongly about the ‘not killing’ moral opinion, such that they hold to it and elevate it into a moral fact, does not stop it being an opinion. It is an opinion common to most if not all humans.

Suppose there is some alien race of beings that do not have our empathy and other brain tools helping us survive as a group, but rather use some other facts and reasons upon which they build their societies. What if an alien race exists whereby the females always bite off the heads of the males after mating, or where the female lets her offspring eat her, or where reproduction is non-sexual and killing is an enjoyable sport? Where does our ‘not killing’ prescription fit into the bigger picture?

As such, our moral codes are arbitrary in the cosmos, but particular to us, as far as we know. Note that this is an inductive argument: it is wrong to kill because all the creatures that can think about this stuff that we have come across so far tend not to like killing. It is contingent upon having a majority of humans that feel this way. It is contingent upon us putting in place systems that counter our occasional frustration or anger that incites our wrath that in turn incites us to kill our friends.

Objective/Subjective Moral Truths/Facts

The religious or cosmologically determined objective moral truths are nothing of the sort. They are the subjective human opinions about the sources of morals.

Some humans feel so strongly about these sources of morality that they treat these opinions about sources and opinions about morals as if they were objective moral truths, as if the facts about these moral ideas can be found, somewhere out there, in or from God, or in the cosmos – but they never are found there, they are only ever imagined to be found there.

But, it is a contingent observable fact, an objective fact, that humans have on the whole come to treat the requirement not to kill as a moral fact.

Humans have invented and hold to a subjective (personally, and culturally) moral opinion, that we should not kill, and hold it so strongly that it has become a somewhat sketchy but generally acceptable objective fact about humans.

But note the important distinction here:

  • That killing is wrong is a strong opinion held by humans.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many if not most humans have that opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans feel so strongly it, and are so unable to see the source of our moral opinions, that they take killing to be wrong as an objective fact about the cosmos or about what gods think.
  • It is not an objective fact that killing is wrong in any sense other than the sense that it’s a strongly held opinion.
  • It is an objectively observable fact that many humans will find convenient exceptions to this general rule that they hold to, that killing is wrong.

We, as humans have opinions about morality and concoct subjective facts. The above are the observable objective facts about the subjective facts of morality that we concoct. They include some explanation for why humans think there are moral truths independent of that, and some explanation about the ways in which we are mistaken.

This subjective/objective business seems to confuse some, but it’s fairly straight forward once you get it, so it’s worth restating it:

  • There are objective discoverable facts about humans.
  • One such (simplified) objective fact is that humans concoct subjective opinions they sometimes feel are objective facts about the world.
  • There is no discoverable (or discovered as yet) cosmological objective fact that it is wrong to kill.
  • There is a human-relative subjective opinion that killing is wrong, and this is (likely) to be the result of evolutionary and social objective facts about human development that we have been discovering.

Moral Consequences

The consequences of all this can be disconcerting to theologians and philosophers alike, and to many people that don’t think about this stuff much.

Is morality that arbitrary?

It seems that arbitrary, on the scale of the cosmos. The stars do not appear to cry out when humans kill each other in large numbers. In fact no other animals seem to care either. We are the only ones that appear to care, if we do at all. Of course, there could be some small scale operation of the universe, on the scale of physics and chemistry, such that when biological brains evolve in groups of sexually reproductive animals like us there is a tendency to prefer not killing over killing, based on the evolution of survival and empathy and theory of mind. But we really don’t know that this is how brainy species must evolve.

But, of course, it’s not that arbitrary, for us. It is the case that humans do want to survive, they do have empathy, have a theory of mind, and this and other stuff all comes together to make us create cultures (many times, independently) where ‘not killing’, at least within the culture, is valued and elevated to a moral code. But that’s about as objective as it gets.

Does that mean there is really nothing stopping you killing when you want to?

No, not really, not in some cosmic sense. Go ahead.

But, we have known for a long time that some people are prepared to kill and have no problem doing so. We have called them all evil in the past, but now we know of some categories of human brain that do not have the inhibitions most of us have. Some people have brains that have no problem killing, and it’s perhaps to the credit of our moral systems that they don’t kill more often. We have built police services, armies, laws, courts of law, prisons and lots of other mechanisms to persuade those of us not convinced by the not killing code to actually not kill. But it takes a particular type of mind, or a mind under some particular conditions, to actually kill; and so mostly we don’t kill. Except for a number of very densely populated cities and some areas of conflict, like war zones, killing is quite rare. There are about 3 million people living in my Greater Manchester home, and not so many people are murdered – it’s news when they are. Even in cities with a high murder rate, it’s still a tiny fraction of the city population that do the murdering, and very few murder more than a small number of times. War zones are exceptions and news. And yet, when it comes to hand to hand combat the killing is small scale, and so only weapons of medium or mass destruction kill many people at once. The Nazis were a modern exception.

And it seems some otherwise very good people can be persuaded to kill quite easily. Look at some of the smart young kids persuaded to join ISIS and kill for their religion.

Religions have both helped prevent killing but have also been a significant excuse for killing. And still are. They have outlived their overall utility. We need to improve education with philosophy and morality and science, to explain who we are and why we don’t want to kill. The naturalistic reasons presented above are enough. Develop those into humanist principles and we don’t need religion.

The non-religious answers aren’t absolute, and are not guaranteed to stop all the killing. But religion doesn’t stop it anyway, clearly. It seems like there’s a good chance that a better education, a reduction in religious indoctrination to remove the temptation to allow religion to increase divisiveness and encourage killing, could move us to a generally better world.

But we have to understand what morality is, and why we want it. We have to get rid of this religious scaremongering that tells us we’re off to hell in a hand cart were it not for religion. It’s bollocks. We can have moral opinions and reason about them to improve them. And we can elevate them to moral codes of conduct that are backed up by law.

We don’t need to reify morality into some cosmic or god given truth or fact. The objectivity of our morality lies within the personal subjective experience of our common human nature. We may have only contingent facts and truths that we must adapt in the light of evidence – but that’s all we have. We are moral humanists.

#PseudoLiberals Go After New Atheists

I’d describe #PseudoLiberals as liberals that have something of the Post Modern Relativism about them. They are individuals that form a loose collective that think they are being particularly good lefty liberals by giving unbounded respect to those playing the offence game in the face of criticism – common with regard to the offended religious.

Their genuine concern for the oppressed and persecuted fogs their view of the very oppressive and persecutory practices of some the people they seek to support or the belief systems that they hold to, and will even blame valid criticisms of the minorities’ beliefs and label the critics as persecutors.

Nothing should prevent reasonable people objecting to any immoral practices that any group engage in, and there should not be a problem with criticising their ideas – especially when those ideas are going to govern their actions towards others.

From honour killings and FGM, to illegal attempts to implement Sharia law, and even to many of the tenets of Islam that are essentially terror tactics: apostasy, blasphemy, heresy, takfir, stoning adulterers, there is much that a western democratic liberal has reason to object to in Islamic belief and practice – no matter what the race, skin colour, origins or religion of both parties to the dispute, believer in the dogma or critic of it, might be.

For the record, because one just has to spell it out, repeatedly …

NOT ALL MUSLIMS! MOST MUSLIMS ARE GOOD, EVEN IF THEIR RELIGION CONTAINS BAD IDEAS.

and, even though I will argue with them on philosophy, science and religion, THIS IS MY TYPE OF MUSLIM!

But take this, from the Quran, 24:2

The [unmarried] woman or [unmarried] man found guilty of sexual intercourse – lash each one of them with a hundred lashes, and do not be taken by pity for them in the religion of Allah, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. And let a group of the believers witness their punishment.

If this is acceptable to you, as a Muslim, or even if you want to come up with some stupid theological scholarly (LOL!) reason for why it might be acceptable in some context (there’s always that slippery context), then you are an anti-humanist I have strong issues with. If your holy book is so inerrant that this cannot be seen as an error, then we have issues. If you are a Muslim that manages to disown this and all the other hateful crap, then I marvel at your cognitive contortions, but we’re OK, at least from my perspective. Still think your religion is daft.

While #PseudoLiberals generally agree with the criticisms levelled against the practices mentioned above, and the many atrocities carried out in the name of Islam, they are often reluctant to express that publicly, and they make a lot of noise when someone does – shooting the messenger, albeit metaphorically, which isn’t always the case with disgruntled Islamists, sadly, and that’s sort of the point, isn’t it.

A lot of the hand waving seems to be linked to the western guilt of the #PseudoLiberals – quite valid in itself often enough, but there’s an all too easy move they make from one unconnected thing to another. So, no, New Atheists are not promoting or excusing western state sponsored terrorism, as one #PseudoLiberal implied, just because that’s not the area of expertise or main interest of New Atheists. The clue is in the name, New Atheism focuses on theism and a-theism, and politics in that context. As I said above, many of the New Atheists are humanists, and in other contexts will also criticise or agree with the #PseudoLiberal criticism of our western governments’ state policies and practices. But that this isn’t central to their work doesn’t mean they are denying such criticism.

#PseudoLiberals aren’t immune to their own pride contributing to the false representations of New Atheists. The way this often goes is that the #PseudoLiberal will jump on some bandwagon of criticism of New Atheists, and when shown to be mistaken they are more likely to keep digging that hole rather than weigh up the arguments fairly. It’s unbelievable how often they’ll misrepresent, be corrected, and then go on to misrepresent with the same factually incorrect material. Contrast this with both Dawkins and Harris, who often correct or explain, and are quite humble in saying, well, yes, I could have said that better, or I retract that. Rare from #PseudoLiberals.

In the case of New Atheist criticism of Islam, the #PseudoLiberals have heard the duplicitous cries of Muslims being offended and they work themselves up into such a frenzy that they would rather propagate lies about New Atheist critics of religion than actually take the trouble to face the many dilemmas that arise from good people believing truly awful things. They are able, often in a single statement, to condemn the violence of the religious, claim it’s nothing to do with religion, and blame New Atheist for that violence by the explicit use of misrepresentation.

Being offended is the heads up public victimhood side of the manipulative coin, with the terror tactics of apostasy, blasphemy, heresy and Takfir emblazoned on the tails side. The #PseudoLiberals are cheats playing with a double headed coin.

#PseudoLiberals engage in the limp logic that manages to accuse New Atheists of beliefs they don’t actually hold, while denouncing the violent actions of Muslims, and yet excusing the horrendous beliefs inherent in religion, particularly in Islam, under the banner of tolerance and respect.

Some Examples of the Problem

These are the arguments made against New Atheists follwoing events like #CharleiHebdo and #ChapelHillShooting.

New Atheists Criticise Islam

#PseudoLiberals assert that New Atheists hate all Muslims. And despite the explicit explanation of why this is not so the #PseudoLiberals continue to spread this lie.

Lone Atheist Hicks Kills Muslims

Hicks had been in some dispute with the victims, over what seems a trivial (compared to death) matter of parking, and it has also been reported by a resident of his condominium that he has expressed “equal opportunity” anger, but the full story hasn’t come out yet. Although there’s a macho element to his Facebook page, and a single (as far as I know) picture of a gun, his page is mostly full of the humanist arguments against religion generally – and it’s hardly what could be called hatred, and in fact is full of quotes expressing very liberal and humanist views. The only intolerance that’s obvious is the intolerance of intolerant religions.

The reason for the shooting remains a mystery for now as the police investigation continues. And desipite his wife saying that in her opinion it really wasn’t a hate crime of religion or race, that hasn’t stopped the #PseudoLiberals making their own uniformed minds up.

#PseudoLiberals have decided that the very humanistic aspects of New Atheism, and Harris and Dawkins in particular, are not sufficient reason to believe they are anything but pedallers of hatred and the direct or indirect cause of this act by Hicks. New Atheists incited this violence.

The New Atheists very clearly criticise Islam, but are explicitly not racist or persecuting of Muslims, and not even claiming all Muslims follow all tenets of the Islam as criticised. But none of that matters to #PseudoLiberals .

Some Muslims Kill Lots of People, Citing Islam

Some Muslims kill people for criticising Islam in terms that upset them. Some critics of Islam draw cartoons, and some Muslims kill them for it, or attempt to kill them for it, or claim they should be killed for it. Some Muslims kill other Muslims for not being the right type of Muslim.

#PseudoLiberals are sure to condemn the killing. But here’s where the logic gets scarily bizarre, because according to #PseudoLiberals:

  1. The culprits are not true Muslims and were not doing it in the name of Islam.
  2. Much of this killing is the fault of New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris. Why? Because they excessively criticise a beloved prophet which offends the Muslims; and worse, these New Atheists blame all Muslims for the killing, and in fact the New Atheists claim all Muslims are terrorists.

Lies, but no matter, the #PseudoLiberals have made up their minds.

Now it seems to me that (1) and (2) just don’t sit right. If the killers are not true Muslims and didn’t do it in the name of Islam, then in what way are critics of Islam responsible for those killings? How have they even contributed to it?

Imagine these scenarios.

Glenn Greenwald makes a career living off the revelations of Snowden on the spying activities of the NSA. Fair enough; it’s to our benefit that he does that, right?

But then some guy reads Greenwald, and agrees with him on how bad the NSA is. He’s a #Greenwaldian. But this guy then learns some spying techniques and uses them against innocent citizens. And then people that don’t like Greenwald claim it’s Greenwald’s fault for inciting the spying of the #Greenwaldian. Would that wash?

And then some NSA agents kill some liberals that have also published some of the Snowden material, by presenting it in cartoon form. And people that don’t like Greenwald claim 1) The killing was nothing to do with the NSA, and 2) It was Greenwald’s fault for revealing the NSA antics in the first place. Would that wash?

The Culprits

Who would make such dumb fucking arguments? Here’s a list of some of the #Greenwaldian characters.

Glenn Greenwald

The man himself. Just follow him and he’ll cough up phlegm soon enough. Here’s an example where he’s more interested in having a dig at Harris than looking at what Harris and Maajid Nawaz are trying to do. Nawaz is an inconvenience in the #Greenwaldian narrative.

Greenwald has so convinced that himself that Harris is a racist that Greenwald thinks Harris can be friends with ‘brown people’, like Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali only for self serving purposes. Opportunist Greenwald judges others by his own standards, or at least by his own biased expectations.

Reza Aslan

Simply denies anyone actually believes any of the literal religious stuff anyway, and blames New Atheists, and Harris in particular, for stirring up nonsense about religiously motivated violence. In denying religion does much motivating it makes you wonder what Aslan thinks it’s good for. Does it not motivate people to do good? Not sure how you can have one without the other if the religious texts contain both incitement to do good and to do violence. But that’s the logic of #PseudoLiberals for you.

Never slow to hop on TV and smugly and authoritatively denounce Sam Harris with a bunch of repeated misrepresentations. Comes across as a nice guy, but he’s pretty sly.

In the case of #CharlieHebdo, he did condemn the killings, and made a wider point about the problems within Islamist groups, informed by Wahhabism. And that’s exactly the kind of criticism New Atheists make, but then he says this:

“What really I think puts an obstacle in the way is opinions like Ayaan [Hirsi Ali]‘s and so many others in the political and the media mainstream who continue to say that 1.7 billion people are responsible for the actions of these extremists.”

Which is the fucking problem. Who the fuck in the New Atheists has said 1.7 billion Muslims are responsible for these actions? Where he continues to fail is not accepting that it’s these extremists that are following the texts, having accused Harris elsewhere of reading the Quran literally.

Well, yes, Harris is listens to extremists say they are following the texts, looks at the texts and says, yes, I can see how they get that, so the text is the source of their understanding of Islam – the text is Islam because that’s how the texts define Islam.

It’s all well and good Aslan saying most Muslims don’t follow the text, when even many ‘moderates’ agree with it in principle, because it’s inerrant. There’s a double speak that goes on in Islam and its interface with the western world, and Aslan contributes to it.

Too few Muslims are facing up to this duplicity, but thankfully some are, and for the record, here’s a couple of groups that are:

On the whole I’d say Aslan’s self serving mixed messages are part of the problem.

Some have called out Reza Aslan’s duplicity.

Robert Wright

Not in the same league as Greenwald and Aslan, but takes the opportunity to have a pop at Harris when he can.

Here he uses an interview with Michael Shermer, on Shermer’s book, to demonise Harris and New Atheists for offending people. And in the same interview says there are times when straight talking is needed. What you find with these #PseudoLiberals is that they are good on criticism of New Atheists while still holding to much of the atheist criticism of religion, but they don’t offer any solution that goes beyond shutting up so as not to offend.

Rebecca Watson

Didn’t expect to have this critic of religion on the list? But on Chapel Hill:

“But on the other hand, it’s difficult to imagine what would drive someone to murder three people over something so stupid, unless the murderer for some reason did not see his victims as full humans deserving of the right to life.”

Well, people do kill each other over really silly things. You live in the USA, Rebecca. Do you not watch the news? Is his general attitude to his neighbours not a clue that it could well have been over a stupid parking lot? Personal space boundaries have been known to be a point of dispute that incites violence.

“And if you have paid any attention to the current state of capital-A-Atheism, you would have to see the growing problem with the continued dehumanization of Muslims, women, and other marginalized groups by community leaders like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Lawrence Krauss, the organizations that support them with awards and speaking engagements, and the mass of young and angry atheists on sites like Reddit.”

This is just fucking bullshit. The real story here is #ElevatorGate payback, with some #GamerGate thrown in.

Basically FtB and Skepchick and others don’t like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Michael Shermer, and anyone who might complain about the excessive abuse they get – so now Michael Nugent is a target at FtB (when they aren’t pretending to ignore him – count the ‘Not Listening’ posts. Lawrence Krauss has upset them in the past, and being a buddy of Dawkins that puts him in the same pile. Jerry Coyne is sometimes a target, but the Coyne/Myers non-exchanges often have a biology/evolution twist. It’s a long story.

“That’s how the “men’s rights movement” led to …”

Oh, yeah, there’s that too.

And this:

“Knowing what we know about the end result of dehumanization combined with violent rhetoric, maybe it’s time that atheists as a group decide to retire this cartoon, which may have been true once but hasn’t been relevant at least since Dawkins started Tweeting about why women who don’t abort fetuses with Downs Syndrome are immoral:”

NewAtheistExtremist

This is disgraceful opportunism from Rebecca Watson.

The cartoon is still true, because of course what Dawkins was saying was nothing to do with New Atheist criticism of Islam, and much less to do with Chapel Hill.

Dawkins was not saying women who don’t abort foetuses with Downs Syndrome are immoral. His point on Downs Syndrome was that the decision to abort is a difficult one, and that we shouldn’t be judgemental about anyone choosing to abort a Downs Syndrome foetus, and that one can even argue there’s some moral argument for not putting the mother or the child through the inevitable tough life ahead. Pointing out a morally positive reason one might want to abort is not declaring that people that don’t abort are immoral, but rather pointing out the moral dilemma that has no easy solution because there are arguments either way.

The crazy thing, and the reason you can tell it’s an old vendetta at work here, is that Watson is pro-choice too. If you’re pro-choice the woman doesn’t even need an additional justification for aborting a foetus. Dawkins was simply making a case that would help those struggling with the choice of aborting in some cases. It’s a bit like when Krauss questioned the moral objection to incest – Yuk! Some topics are beyond the pale for #PseudoLiberals.

The hypocrisy here is unbelievable. So quick to denounce Dawkins for tweets that can be maliciously interpreted, when they have done the malicious interpretation. And then Watson has a whole post in which to be clear, and the only clear reading of her post is that it has nothing to do with Chapel Hill or atheism.

Chapel Hill? An opportunity not to be missed.

Cal Colgan

Cal Colgan is a #Greenwaldian that thinks along the same lines.

He tweeted,

““New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this [link]”.

Colgan is a researcher for Media Matters, according to his Twitter bio. And Media Matters is about …

“to systematically monitor a cross section of print, broadcast, cable, radio, and Internet media outlets for conservative misinformation – news or commentary that is not accurate, reliable, or credible and that forwards the conservative agenda.”

Guess it must have been Cal’s day off doing research challenging misinformation, unreliability, inaccuracy. Great job Cal.

You can see more of that conversation here.

Mehdi Hasan

An old time Muslim #Greenwaldian. A democratic liberal secular Muslim that raises many good social issues, but in his defence of his Islam isn’t above coming out with the same old incorrect stuff about New Atheist.

Here’s a post based on his Facebook page, where he wrote along side a link to a piece on the Chapel Hill shooting:

“Will we now see lots of pieces calling for ‘reform’ of New Atheism and a search for ‘moderate’ New Atheists? ‪#‎justasking‬”. As if there is any doctrine to reform – unlike Islam.

Cenk Uygur

I didn’t expect this. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention to Cenk because I’ve focused on the TYT general political issues.

I saw Cenk engaged in a studio shake down of Sam Harris, with some of the usual crew and some other guy I can’t recall. Then I saw him let Reza Aslan have an easy time telling his lies. And, in a return interview with Harris, Cenk really grilled Harris.

My complaint isn’t about the grilling of Harris. Cenk sorta did his job that day, though by then it was obvious the interview was loaded with Cenk’s preconceptions about Harris, confirmed for him, I’m sure, in the Aslan interview. But he let Aslan take him on a stroll through the anti-Harris park with barely a quizzical glance.

Cenk made the point somewhere, about his uncle being a Muslim and how he’s just an ordinary nice guy, and I thought, yeah, emotion is in control there. Of course you love your Muslim family, and yeah, they are living a ‘normal’ life of not engaging in the crazy shit that’s in the Quran and the Hadith – but that doesn’t get Islam, which is the Quran and Hadith, off the hook; and it’s the Quran and Hadith that Harris is criticising, not your deal old uncle and all the other ordinary people that happen to have been indoctrinated into Islam. Cenk, you numbskull, you criticise conservatism politics, but you know damned well not all conservatives are total dicks. Don’t you think Harris understands this distinction between Islam and most Muslims?

Apparently you don’t:

Another point Cenk made was he hadn’t read much of Harris; and yet he could tell us what he thought Harris thought and said, based then on what some other people had to say about Harris – hearsay passes for research then on TYT?

Harris is not the Muslim hating bigot Aslan (and Greenwald) make out – far from it, it’s his humanism that sparks his criticism of Islam because Islam contains the dogma so easily turned to hate and violence. But Cenk bought into the Aslan message.

Rabah Kherbane

Not someone I’d class as a liberal, though he’s into human rights. Deserves an honorary mention for the headline:

Chapel Hill Shooting: How Many More Until We Realise This Is A Trend?

I don’t know. Hicks is one, so will two do it for you Rabah? No doubt you’ll wait in hope for the next martyrs. If not two, then how about as many as this: Islamic Terrorist Attacks. Let me know when we evil New Atheists are close.

Cal Colgan Blames New Atheists for Chapel Hill Shooting

Here’s an idiotic tweet from @calcolgan, ironically calling out his imagined idiocy of others:

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/565909458736672768
4:25 PM – 12 Feb 2015
“New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this http://nyti.ms/1FyYOqN

From a twitter exchange this is what he thinks about the #ChapelHillShooting:

  • Colgan says New Atheists idiots have turned non-belief into violent fanatcism.
  • Colgan claims there’ve been numerous violent atheists – and is asked which ones.
  • Colgan responds with: What about state sponsored terrorism.
  • Colgan complains that New Atheists focus on Islam.
  • Colgan accuses Hitchens of supporting the war in Iraq because he and other New Atheists want to kill off Islam.
  • Colgan implies that Harris and Dawkins think all religious people are terrorists, “Doesn’t mean all religious ppl are potential terrorists.”

Nowehere does he actually back up his claims that:

  • New Atheists are turning non-belief into violent fanaticism
  • That Dawkins and Harris are somehow at fault for focusing on religion and Islam specifically
  • That Hitchens backed the war in Iraq because he wanted to kill off Islam
  • That any New Atheist has remotely suggested that all religious people are terrorists.

The New Atheists I’ve come across have been humanists, and some are subscribing Humanists through various national and international organisations.

I don’t know of any atheists, new or otherwise, that have committed violence in the name of atheism or New Atheism; and in fact violence is antithetical to their humanist beliefs. I can understand why Colgan would be dismayed at such people turning non-belief into violent fanaticism, if only they had. But of course they haven’t. It’s all in Colgan’s head. And remember, this Colgan calamity came out of the #ChapelHillShooting, and the investigation has yet to reveal the actual motivation of Hicks the shooter – unlike the many terrorist attacks by Muslims (NOT ALL MUSLIMS!) where we know the motivation, done explicitly in the name of Islam, often with quotes from Islamic texts to justify the attacks.

He’s right on state sponsored terrorism of course, in that the US and allies have done some atrocious things. And New Atheist humanists object to them as much as anyone, even if much of their public writing has other targets. So why is Colgan providing state sponsored terrorism as an example of the numerous atheists (or New Atheists) performing terror acts in response to the works of Dawkins and Harris – I don’t recall any reports from Wikileaks of clandestine activities quoting Dawkins or Harris.

And though Dawkins and Harris do focus on Islam rather than state sponsored terrorism, why does that mean that they should not criticise religion, or Islam specifically, when the religious doctrines advocate anti-humanist, anti-liberal, anti-democratic presscriptions, and in the case of Islam, actual violence, oppression and terror. If Dawkins and Harris have their specific concerns about religion, and feel that great journalists like Glenn Greenwald, and of course Cal Colgan, have state sponsored terrorism covered, what exactly is Colgan’s beef?

I mean, it’s not as if Islam is not a source of terror. If Colgan thinks state actions constitute terror, then why not religious rules that prescribe (and in some Islamic states result in) death for apostasy – how is that not a tool of terror. How are blasphemy laws not a tool of terror when laced with the threat of death? Why does Colgan think Islam gets a pass on these and many other tenets that are explicitly part of the religion? Why do Hadith that prescribe tossing homosexuals off buildings not count as terror threats?

Why single out Islam? Islam isn’t singled out. All religions are criticised. But, in Colgan’s words, let’s be real: the following were done directly in the name of Islam or its prophet in order to inflict terror, suppress criticism, avenge Allah or Mohammed for the insults inflicted upon them:

You wonder why Dawkins and Harris make it all about Islam? because so many Muslims are making terror all about Islam. Of course there are other factors that should be addressed. There are many people around the world with real and legitimate grievances against someone or other, but few do it in such a monolithic manner using the texts of a religion to justify attacking and killing innocent people. I don’t see many Christians rushing to fight for the latest Crusade in defence of Christians persecuted by Muslims.

And here’s Harris, having to spell out how he has spelt it out already,

“Although I clearly stated that I wasn’t claiming that all Muslims adhere to the dogmas I was criticizing; distinguished between jihadists, Islamists, conservatives, and the rest of the Muslim community; and explicitly exempted hundreds of millions of Muslims who don’t take the doctrines about blasphemy, apostasy, jihad, and martyrdom seriously, Affleck and Kristof both insisted that I was disparaging all Muslims as a group.”

It is totally dishonest of Colgan to even imply it as he did.

Another significant point that Colgan misses is that state sponsored terrorism has always been done against the spirit, and usually (though becoming less so) against the law, of the constitutions and principles of all western democracies – and of course Colgan is targeting the US and allies here, but neglects to mention Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and of course Saudi Arabia, and other Islamic states where the doctrine and politics of Islam dictates such terror sponsorship. He also seems to miss the fact that much of the state sponsored terror carried out by the US is in the capable hands of right thinking Christians – ‘In God We Trust’ and all that. Atheists are a minority in the US, and New Atheists an even smaller minority, and none of them, as far as I know, are engaged in or support state sponsored terrorism. Why the fuck does the stupid Colgan associate his claim that New Atheists are inciting violence, with state sponsored terror? He’s deluded himself. Good job. To be honest, I don’t suppose he does think they are associated. It’s more likely he was busy backtracking after a gratuitous opportunistic dig at New Atheists – welcome on board the Greenwaldian bandwagon Cal.

The only belief system providing an explanation for British born, Pakistani heritage, youth travelling into Syria and Iraq is because they have been called to do so by fellow Muslims, to defend and/or spread the Muslim faith, to join the long anticipated Caliphate. It doesn’t matter one holy fuck that the majority of Muslims choose not to follow suit. It matters not a jot that so many Muslims ignore the terror incitement contained in their holy texts, or make pathetic excuses for it in the name of ‘context’, because the incitement remains for the crazy and the gullible to follow, and that’s the nature of the specific problem with Islam, right now, today. The problem with Islam isn’t most Muslims, it’s Islam.

Colgan, your original tweet and follow up is a complete fucking joke. You are making a damned fool of yourself buying into this crazy Greenwaldian double speak. The New Atheists are not inciting violence in any way whatsoever, while the inerrant Quran itself does, along with the Hadith. It is fucking dishonest to try and make the false equivalences you do, between New Atheists and Islamic terrorists, or between New Atheists and state sponsored terror.

As a final appeal to common sense, let me spell out a few of the points again:

  • New Atheist coverage of Islam at the omission of coverage of state sponsored terror is no more an endorsement of state sponsored terror than Glenn Greenwald’s focus on state sponsored terror at the expense of his possible focus on Islamic terror is an implication of his endorsement of Islamic terror.
  • The humanism of the New Atheists’ and their criticism of the anti-humanism of Islam has fuck all to do with some atheist going off on one and killing three Muslims, for whatever reason. Even if it turns out Hicks thinks it was inspired by New Atheism.
  • Blaming New Atheism for Hicks is as as dumb as claiming that someone reading Glenn Greenwald criticism of NSA spying on its citizens was incited to spy on US citizens, and it’s Greenwald’s fault, for criticising spying on US citizens.
  • Is in no way equivalent to the Islamic terrorism that has actual Muslims (SOME MUSLIMS, NOT ALL MUSLIMS! FUCK, HAVE YOU GOT THAT?) declaring they are performing the acts of terror in the name of Islam, using the actual texts of Islam to justify their actions. Because the former has zero incitement to violence but actually opposes it, and while the latter actually incites violence, , as many engage in violence, and while many of its adherents are duplicitous in their denial of it.

Earlier I asked, “Why does Colgan think Islam gets a pass…” I’m sure he doesn’t give Islam a pass really. My guess is he opposes many aspects of Islamic doctrine, just as New Atheists do. So, what’s his problem with New Atheists? Because that’s what his tweet is all about, and precious little to do with Chapel Hill, which is only a convenient outlet for his opinions. I’m not suggesting his sorrow at the event is any less than that of Dawkins or Harris.

The thing is, what you find with many like Colgan, is that they are great on criticism but short on solution. Colgan may think Islam has problems (I doubt he thinks it totally benign in all regards) but he opposes attempts to do anything about it, or interprets the words of the New Atheists in calling for reform in Islam (and note the work of Maajid Nawaz here and his collaboration with Harris) as New Atheist terrorism, racism, bigotry. He’d rather hope the problem goes away than risk offending Muslims. He has no problem offending fellow atheists though. Not that I object to him offending fellow atheists, but I do object to his double standards

Below is a collection of tweets that were used as a source for this post. If any significant ones are missing, or if I’ve misrepresented Colgan’s views as portrayed in his tweets, then I’d be glad to make corrections. If Cal Colgan wants to comment I’d be glad to hear from him.

Hide tweets

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/565909458736672768
4:25 PM – 12 Feb 2015
“New Atheist” idiots are turning nonbelief into the very violent fanaticism they oppose. We atheists shd condemn this http://nyti.ms/1FyYOqN

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566027677510139904
12:14 AM – 13 Feb 2015
One violent atheist and “idiots are turning non belief into the very violent …” Get some proportion.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566315517838114816
7:18 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Let’s be real: There’ve been numerous “violent atheists.” Atheists are only united in our nonbelief.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566317218305441793
7:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Really? Numerous? Violent against the religious because of their atheism? Which ones? Compared to theists violent FOR religion?

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566320771879153664
7:39 PM – 13 Feb 2015
I’m not going to get into a tired debate abt how Islam is the chief perveyor of terrorism in the world.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566320995620118528
7:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
If you define terrorism as killing of innocents for political gain, state terrorism by Western govts has higher death toll.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566321149609791488
7:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But Dawkins, Maher, Harris, et al only seem concerned about Islam, b/c it’s easier to criticize outspoken fanatics than govts.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566322451345575936
7:46 PM – 13 Feb 2015
So what? They do do other things of course, but so what? Dawkins is anti-religion because of evo education.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566322902359105536
7:47 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Terrorism is intentional killing of innocents, for terror – clue in name. With gvt. it’s usually a fuck up and not primary intent

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566328939535417344
8:11 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sigh. I’m not saying theists haven’t committed more violence. But state atheism has lead to millions of deaths as well.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566329036629352449
8:12 PM – 13 Feb 2015
The problem isn’t necessarily religion. The problem is the authoritarian manipulation of religion.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566329195819962368
8:12 PM – 13 Feb 2015
For every MLK & Malcolm X, there’s a Jon Tiller or Osama bin Laden. Doesn’t mean all religious ppl are potential terrorists.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566329346798133251
8:13 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Also, way to downplay the killing of innocent people by govts. Christopher Hitchens would be proud.

https://twitter.com/nalathekoala/status/566338641518399488
8:50 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Actually, he’s right. You made a moral-equivalency argument between ISIS and the US. And what about Hitchens, exactly?

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566345579832561664
9:18 PM – 13 Feb 2015
I don’t downplay gvt., of US, UK, oh and Islamic Saudi, Islamic Iran. Compare US Constitution with Sharia

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566346004342276096
9:19 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But go on, give examples of 9/11, 7/7, Madrid, embassies, …, by US/UK

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566346444597387265
9:21 PM – 13 Feb 2015
1.) US has been around longer than ISIS. Not saying savagery is the same. Proportionality of violence different.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566346614080806913
9:22 PM – 13 Feb 2015
2.) Hitchens famously defended the Iraq War, and other New Atheists defended it b/c “Islam needs to die.”

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566346936715075586
9:23 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sure. 9/11/73: CIA-funded military coup of Chile resulted in fascist dictatorship. Thousands died ovr next 10 yrs.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566346994885873664
9:23 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Proportional to capability. You think ISIS wouldn’t do more if it could?

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566347199693729793
9:24 PM – 13 Feb 2015
30,000 ppl slaughtered in Argentina’s Dirty War. CIA trained right wing gov’t.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566347404082163712
9:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
So nothing to do with Chilean get. And Mid East nothing to do with Iraq,Iran,Saudi,… All down to US?

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566347449024151554
9:25 PM – 13 Feb 2015
1982 — priests were killed & nuns were raped & killed by CIA-funded AUC death squad in Colombia.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566347719900676097
9:26 PM – 13 Feb 2015
You’re mincing words. Didn’t say Mid-East has nothing to do with it, but US, Britain, France played big part in chaos

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566347723507793923
9:26 PM – 13 Feb 2015
All states meddle where they can. Just that some have more power. Not excusing it, but not all down to US

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566347877749116928
9:27 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Never said it’s all down to US. Funny how you make blanket criticisms of Islam & then defend US state terrorism

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566347884233502720
9:27 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Supporting Taliban, then opposing them? Yeah, got’ fuck up.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566348162362015744
9:28 PM – 13 Feb 2015
But still, where in Constitution is that justified. Quran/Hadith EXPLCITLY incite violence and oppression.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566348358928072706
9:29 PM – 13 Feb 2015
All states play part in chaos. So, your point then is what?

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566348591137304576
9:30 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Again, where in US constitution, UK law, is justification for control of belief (apostasy) criticism (blasphemy)

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566348889612382208
9:31 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Quran is claimed to be inerrant. So ISIS has good claim to be following it. More so than moderates.

https://twitter.com/calcolgan/status/566349362209759232
9:33 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Nowhere, but Founders also went through with 1798 Alien & Sedition Acts — 7 yrs after Bill of Rights passed.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566350124583223296
9:36 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Where have I defended it?

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566350673424687105
9:38 PM – 13 Feb 2015
And the blanket criticism of Islam is because this is in all versions of Quran: http://quran.com/24/2 So, yes.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566350872792539136
9:39 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Like I said, US ‘terror’ is failure to comply with own constitution. ISIS is complying with Islam.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566351807572881410
9:42 PM – 13 Feb 2015
U twist my blanket crit of Islam for “all relig ppl terrorists” Where’ve I seen that misrep. before. Reza Aslan, Glenn Greenwald?

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566352978685485056
9:47 PM – 13 Feb 2015
Sigh. I’m not saying state action doesn’t. So we agree then. Islam bad. Not all Muslims bad. Some state acts bad.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566353375063982080
9:49 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“The problem isn’t necessarily religion.” Yes it is. Read violence in Quran.

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566353691578359808
9:50 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“Authoritarian manipulation”? LOL. Religon IS authoritarian. Apostasy. Blasphemy. Lashes. Stoning. What are they?

https://twitter.com/ronmurp/status/566353920998789120
9:51 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“School of Americas, and the Contras didn’t intentionally kill innocents?” Where did I say that?

https://twitter.com/nalathekoala/status/566365195531194368
10:35 PM – 13 Feb 2015
And Hitchens spent his life trying to get the parties responsible to face accountability–he made a movie about it!

https://twitter.com/nalathekoala/status/566366305377607680
10:40 PM – 13 Feb 2015
The Founders? Hm, I guess Jefferson and Madison (who greatly opposed the A&S Acts) weren’t “Founders”.

View tweets

New Atheism

New Atheism is being subjected to attacks, and it’s clear from those attacks, from what the critics say, that many really don’t understand New Atheism, and in many cases haven’t read what new Atheists actually say, but rather rely on what other opponents say New Atheists say. There are descriptions of New Atheism around the internet, but many of them don’t really explain what is being missed. So, here’s my take.

I’m focusing on New Atheism here, rather than atheism generally, or humanism, or Atheism Plus (A+), because it is so often attacked by these other atheist groups, by #LimpLogicLiberals as well as by theists.

New Atheism is the label assigned to atheists that are more vocal in their criticism of religion. In most respects they are not saying anything new that all atheists say, when it comes to belief in God; and they are all that more critical of religion that many earlier atheists. What seems to get peoples backs up about them is their ‘stridency’, and the fact that they have it in for Islam. Now all this has arisen since 9/11 in 2001, which was a turning point.

The current two New Atheists that get most stick are Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Hitchens is dead, and Dennett is rather mild mannered by comparison. Jerry Coyne has taken up the mantle to some extent. He, like Dawkins, leans towards the educational aspect as well as the wider social implications of religion – he, like Dawkins, oppose the Creationism and its rejection of Evolution. Both criticise the Christian Creationism in the US; and Dawkins also covers Islamic Creationism in the UK, particularly in relation to the move towards religiously controlled schools that sneak creationism in, or blatantly push it while rejecting Evolution.

Then there are many less prominent but public figures who could be called New Atheists – so Stephen Pinker is one that finds himself grouped with the New Atheists, whether he likes it or not, because he writes stuff that often includes a science based criticism of irrational belief; and Michael Shermer is another, more in the Skeptical community, though he has critics in the self-styled A+, Feminist, Skeptical community; and Michael Nugent, who focuses on religion in Ireland, but expresses many of the same views as the New Atheists, and also might be lumped in with them for also being attacked by the A+ crowed.

And then there are the many nobodies such as myself, that haunt the internet putting theist straight in their foolish ways.

One problem for anyone trying to get a handle on New Atheism is that, despite the common claim by opponents, it is not a religion or a singular political belief system. It is the amalgamation of a number of beliefs, or more realistically, a number of adaptive processes for coming to beliefs, and as such it is comfortable with allowing for difference of belief and changes to belief.

One way of describing New Atheism is to observe its relationship to other strands of thought:

Humanism – While many New Atheists are Humanists, in that they subscribed to Humanist organisations, national or international (Dawkins is a member of the BHA), all of them that I have come across are at least humanists, small ‘m’, in that they support humanist beliefs.

Humanist organisations tend to spell out their beliefs, in something like a Humanist Manifesto: proposals or agreed tenets of behaviour worked out using some of the principles above, but they are not tenets of absolute belief, the way tenets of a religion might be. That’s not to say that some humanists don’t hold to them as if they are absolute. You will find some humanists declaring Human Rights to be absolute, but I’d argue with that. They are contingent upon our feelings as evolved and culturally developed humans, and as such can vary with culture, and could have varied further had we humans arrived here with different evolved feelings.

If you look at this list, on Humanist Manifesto III, you’ll see that it pretty much covers the rest of the items below. Humanist organisations tend to be more politically active, while the prominent New Atheists may be included in that activism, they are better known for their own unaffiliated works.

Science – Typically there is an agreement that science can reveal much more about the world, and about humans, than mere navel gazing or inventing magical entities that reveal knowledge ready made. There is much confusion here, caused by humanists, and some Humanists, that while not anti-science intentionally, do a great disservice to humanism by crying about ‘scientism’. No current New Atheist I know claims that science actually has the answer to all our problems. They simply don’t – ask them.

What they will tend to say is that science, now, or in the future, is a set of methodologies that do or will offer the best way to come to understand the world and humans. None of them I know of deny totally the value of the arts of various kinds – and in fact many, maybe most, value the arts greatly. And on balance I’d say that scientifically educated and professional scientist New Atheists appreciate the arts far more than many of their non-science critics appreciate science. In fact many of their critics are quite ignorant of many aspects of science, especially its general nature. This is a bone of contention with theists and philosophers typically, but also with some non-sciency liberal journalists.

Science is the result of humans using their natural evolved faculties of the senses and reason, and applying those more rigorously, often with the aid of instruments and mathematics, in order to enhance the range data gathered and analysis of data that comes from being more rigorous. Science is not some extra-human realm of magic. All humans are in principle capable of learning and challenging any claim made in science. New Atheists tend to expand the use of the term ‘science’, certainly to include many of the social sciences, but also to include straight forward observation and common sense – with the caveat that the raw unrigorous faculties can be so fallible that where possible the methods of science should be used to test our hypotheses.

It’s such a broad and inclusive description that one wonders why anyone would object to it. But some do, for the expedient purpose of objecting to New Atheist criticism of their religion or their philosophy.

This broad science approach is in contrast to religion, where all its significant claims about knowledge are based on the imagination of some magical entity revealing knowledge to humans, often particular humans.

This also contrasts with pure reason of philosophy, where the mind is the only tool of significance. Of course even the most Rationalist or Idealist philosopher bases all he knows on empirical observation. And the most supernaturalist Christian or Muslim theist relies on the empirical observation of the content of a book (for all they take too much from it). But that’s not always appreciated. The most extreme critics of the sciency approach, those that cry ‘scientism’, use the same approach too, but badly, and in such a way they think they are engaging in ‘other ways of knowing’. This seems somewhat delusional, for there is zero evidence of other ways of knowing beyond the use of our senses and reasoning about what we observe.

But back to science and its influence on New Atheism. So, what science does, even in its most basic form of observing the world and reasoning about it, is it reveals something very significant: science is hard work, and the results are not always easy to interpret, and ideas may change over time as new data comes in.

And this is a foundational appreciation of the nature of reality and the human condition. We are learning as we go.

On that basis, and on where science is now, no human has any knowledge about how the universe came into being, despite a few centuries of trying to figure that out, and a few millennia of the religious claiming they already found out. There is zero data to support any notion of some supernatural being; and while there is no evidence to exclude one there is also no evidence to exclude multiple supernatural beings, a hierarchy, of hypernatural, superhypernatural, or any other source of beings. There is zero evidence that the intelligence ascribed to such imaginary beings exists in any form, other than the form we experience in ourselves.

But, despite this overwhelming lack of any data about gods of any kind, the contingent nature of knowledge on future developments is such a compelling idea that New Atheists informed by science are pretty much compelled to hold that no human has all the answers to all the questions we ask, and therefore it is reasonable to accept, even encourage, a variety of thought, even if that leads to mistaken beliefs sometimes.

Freedom of Belief – The above idea alone, of the contingency and fluidity of accurate knowledge, is sufficient for New Atheists to support the freedom of belief. But add to that the general humanist principle that all humans are valuable, then all together New Atheists have nothing that would lead them to persecute people for any of the varieties of form that humans come in – skin colour, place of and parentage of origin on earth (race), sexual orientation.

Religion is set of belief systems that New Atheists do not hold with, and based on the above, New Atheists find religions to be loaded with bad ideas. But from a humanist and observational perspective it is clear that most believers are indoctrinated into their religious beliefs from being children. Additionally there are many charismatic con men out there that can easily turn the unwary to pretty much any religious belief, so even adulthood is not protection from erroneous belief. And even New Atheists acknowledge many natural cultural human biases that can deflect their own thinking from the best reasoned path. So, it would seem at least cruel, to blame all theists for their beliefs, or to blame anyone entirely for whatever they come to believe.

So all-in-all New Atheists have every reason to support the freedom of belief.

The humanism, contingency of knowledge and the freedom of belief lead New Atheists to another principle:

Secularism – Secularism isn’t atheism, though it is often passed off as such. Secularism is the disassociation of power from belief, particularly political power. In specifically that leads to the separation of church and state, the most common expression of secularism and that which is included in some Humanist ‘manifestos’

Secularism allows people of varying beliefs to engage in any requirements their belief systems have, without favour or privilege and without persecution. Keeping belief systems as far away from state power as possible prevents the persecution of non-state-validated belief systems.

This is difficult of course, because states use powers, and some of those powers will inevitably align with some belief system and not with others, while at the same time some other powers might align with different belief systems. It’s difficult not to restrict state power to the lowest common denominator, which means no power, without enabling chaos and violence in the name of belief systems to proceed unchecked. Some degree of state power and policing is necessary in order to then allow as much individual freedom as possible. While the Golden Rule is the most commonly acknowledge lowest common denominator it isn’t universal agreed upon, particularly by religions that profess that their God insists they should interfere in the lives of non-believers. But this latter case is a very good reason for endorsing secularism, unless you follow the religion in power.

There are many believers that appreciate this dilemma, of balancing freedom of belief with the freedom to impose your beliefs on others, and so there are many religious believers that subscribe to secularism as the separation of church and state – though of course confusion ensues because some of those same theists use the term secularism to refer to atheism and the loss of religious privilege that exists for their religion.

All this isn’t to say that New Atheists are the sole torch bearers for atheism, humanism, secularism, science and scepticism. There are members of the liberal elite that support all those but are also engaged in a diatribe of abuse and misrepresentation of New Atheists. But more on those another time. For now, that’s my summary of New Atheism – or how I see New Atheism, in myself and in the expressed views of people like Dawkins and Harris.

Scepticism
This is presented as a separate thing, and is discussed and engaged in in terms of the ‘Sceptical Community’ (Skeptical in the US). It too is a bit of an amalgamation of approaches, but emphasises scepticism and often targets religion, but is also critical of the paranormal – so JREF and CFI are typical of this wider focus. But of course, scepticism is a natural feature of a good science based approach to knowledge, and a feature of New Atheist thinking.

Clarifying Some Points

The prominent New Atheists are even somewhat reluctant to call themselves New Atheists, though some accept the label for want of a better one.

Opponents of New Atheism make various claims about New Atheism or New atheists that are simply untrue. In an attempt to clarify some specific points I present the following.

Is New Atheism a belief system? Not as such, in that it has no beliefs set in stone. But it does look for evidence to inform and support beliefs. But then those beliefs are contingent and subject to improvement. They are contingent conclusions of a method of thinking and observing the world, and are not something that we start out with. Having said that it’s quite possible that the same beliefs were arrived at by other means, along with many mistaken beliefs, and that New Atheism methods have trimmed our beliefs down to some set that we think most reliable, for now.

Is New Atheism a political movement? Not explicitly, and the most prominent New Atheists are generally scientists and philosophers rather than politicians. But in other capacities they engage in social and political change – for example, by being members of organisations like the British Humanist Association, which does lobby politicians for social change, or objecting to the neglect and abuse of science in education.

It is fair to say New Atheists are anti-religion. Though they generally acknowledge that many people can use religion for entirely good purposes, the method of belief, using faith and relying on presuppositions declared in ancient texts, is such an unreliable guide to knowledge that it can be so easily turned to hate, oppression and terror – and much of the effort of New Atheists is engaged in pointing out these faults. This is the extent to which they are anti-religion.

It is fair to say that New Atheists are anti-theists. This is somewhat less of a social and political position that being anti-religion – more of a science and philosophy take on the absence for any evidence to support the beliefs of the dominant religions, or any religions for that matter. The New Atheist approach also includes explanations on what is clearly the poor reasoning of many of the religious. Some philosophers object because they think they see some presuppositions at work – but generally those presuppositions are both reasonable, and can be backed up with yet more argument from observations about the world.

Are New Atheists racists? No. While not wishing to make any absolute statement, this is about as close as we might get to one. There is the positive belief, as a conclusion of contemplating humanism, evolution, biology, that race is a rather poor distinguishing factor. Race is often interpreted through the visual appearances of skin colour and cultural identity, but given that those alone make no significant distinction between humans, New Atheists are thorough anti-racists. Of course any human can have racist tendencies that the hide or suppress, so it’s not beyond doubt that all New Atheists are not racists – but then this applies to all humans, including the critics of New Atheists.

All the charges of racism I’ve seen aimed at new Atheists have been just actual lies, or lies by conflating religion with race. The latter is actually a racist move in itself, for it is explicitly these opponents that are identifying people of a religion with race, while the New Atheists make the distinction. And of course New Atheists have many anti-religious atheist allies that would be from the same genetic background as the supposed targets of New Atheist racism, but let’s not mention that in the presence of the hypocrites.

There have been and continue to be some despicable claims made that the criticism of Islam by New Atheists is racist. This is at best understandable coming from people of different cultures that have been subject to racism because of their culture, religion or skin colour – it’s easy to be consumed by the anti-western rhetoric and a complete misunderstanding of New Atheism. It’s understandable that Muslims will object to their faith being criticised, though there are many examples of Muslims lying boldly about what atheists say, and about New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris. But the most heinous lies come from fellow atheists, and those of the A+ agenda, or the #LimpLogicLiberals that have a factional axe to grind. Most commonly this lie is perpetuated by the likes of Glenn Greenwald, and is even bought into by otherwise rational people like Cenk Uygur, at the behest of the lying Reza Aslan. It may seem extreme to call out such people as purveyors of lies, but there’s plenty of evidence for such a claim.

Some Sources

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
I disagree with a few things here, but overall it’s a fair description. I disagree particularly with the section 5, on Secular Morality. I disagree with its take on morality, and to some extent disagree with its take on what New Atheists think about morality. But I can go into that again some time. Section 8, on criticisms, gives the impression that most of it is epistemological and philosophical generally, but it fails to engage with the criticism from other liberal atheists that might have much the same philosophical perspective that the New Atheists have, where criticism is directed firmly, if unjustifiably in my view, at the approach New Atheists take to the criticism of religion, and of Islam in particular.

Good old Wikipedia
A common complaint is that New Atheists present too literal a vie of religion – a point made by, who else, but the more sophisticated theologian that doesn’t buy the literalist take on the Bible and Quran. But the real issue here is that it is they, the sophisticates, that are in the minority in religious belief, in that sufficient Christians and Muslims hold to enough of the bad ideas in their holy texts to make the New Atheist criticism currently salient to the social effects of religion. And then there’s that totally fucked up opinion from Noam Chomsky. In what sense is writing a few books and appearing at speaking events or on TV ‘bludgeoning’ anyone? Its exactly the sort of freedom of expression that Chomsky engages in when he publishes his views. It is precisely not the ‘bludgeoning’ act of imposing apostasy, blasphemy, heresy rulings and punishments on people that religions engage in. The New Atheist rhetoric may be blunt, to the point, and direct, unlike the slimy slippery language of the religious, but that is one of its great features – the clarity of thought and reasoning from New Atheists outshines the fluff and magic of religion, and much of the philosophical hang wringing of people like Chomsky. And of course we can rely on the usual unsubstantiated claims of New Atheist bigotry, often from supporters of religious bigotry – it’s always a good move to convince your fellow theists that the atheist opposition is exactly what has been aimed at your religion, so much so that in Islam there’s a term for this common method: Takfir. Look it up.

Rational Wiki
This is a mixed site, with some good stuff, but also with an agenda in the mind of its creator. And it can get a little dated. For example, as well as listing the four horsmen, it also adds PC Myers as a ‘partner in crime’. Well, that ship has sailed. PZ Myers is one of the A+ members most critical of Dawkins and Harris, and the followers of Myers are about as anti-Dawkins and anti-Harris as you can get. But these guys are a whole other story.

Yes Mehdi Hasan, I Condem Those Atheists Texts Calling for Lashes, Stoning, Death

Mehdi Hasan is up to his usual rhetorical tricks.

On his Facebook page he links to the Richard Dawkins comments in the Huffington Post piece: Atheist Richard Dawkins Condemns Chapel Hill Shootings Of Three Muslim Students.

His comment accompanying the post:

Will we now see lots of pieces calling for ‘reform’ of New Atheism and a search for ‘moderate’ New Atheists? ‪#‎justasking‬

So, Mehdi, if you think New Atheism is in need of reform, can you point to the New Atheist scriptures that Craig Hicks might have followed in order to justify the killing?

Can you point to New Atheist scripture that demands lashes for sex outside marriage, or stoning of adulterers? Can you point to any New Atheist scriptures that denounce atheists for apostasy, for those converting to Islam or Christianity?

Islam needs reforming so that the barbaric tenets contained in the Quran and Hadith cannot be used as an excuse to commit violence in the name of Islam.

What exactly do you think there is in New Atheism that needs reforming? You want ‘moderate’ New Atheists? New Atheism is already moderate: free speech, freedom of belief, no special privilege for any belief systems, secular government (not Christian, not Islamic, not atheist, …). There are no ‘apostasy’ rules trying to prevent atheists becoming believers. There are no ‘blasphemy’ rules denouncing anti-atheist rhetoric. There’s no lashing for sex outside marriage; no stoning of adulterers.

Exactly what reforms would you like, Mehdi?

I think I get it, you’re just whining because your precious prophet is lampooned? You don’t like to see outsiders criticise your faith?

#justasking

Mehdi Hasan, like many Muslims commenting on criticisms of Islam, or on the association of self-declared Muslims doing violence in the name of their prophet, isn’t happy that Islam gets the blame when so many self-declared Muslims join ISIS and other organisations. He’s not convinced that Islam is the problem, even when they quote the passages that inspire their violence.

Look, Mehdi isn’t a violent Jihadist, so how can anyone blame Islam?

Well, it’s quite easy to explain. Mehdi and all moderate Muslims that still believe that the Quran is the inerrant word of God are stuck in denial. They have to start making up bullshit excuses about ‘context’ to explain when it’s reasonable to stone a woman to death.

And, as Coel Hellier pointed out in a recent post Mainstream Islam is not moderate.

Can we blame Richard Dawkins for this act by Craig Hicks?

This is one of the most ridiculous posts I’ve seen today:

RichardDawkinsCraigHicks

Adeel Ahmed, you’re misguided.

There are currently many people pointing out that Craig Hicks did this in the name of atheism, that he’s an Atheist terrorist.

I think it quite legitimate to call Hicks a terrorist. It’s quite legitimate to call him an Atheist terrorist, if the reports are confirmed that Craig Hicks did this in the name of Atheism.

But that doesn’t suddenly present some parallel with the case made that Islam is a significant component of the terror committed in the name of Islam. Islam has texts that can be used to justify terrorist acts. Atheism does not. Atheism has very little in the way of doctrine. It is merely the lack of belief in gods. The ‘strident’ New Atheists are merely more outspoken about this and more willing to point out the faults of religions. That doesn’t make atheism amenable to the justification of terrorism. What Hicks has done is not only not justifiable by Atheism, New Atheism, Humanist, Scepticism, it is totally antithetical to everything that Atheists, New Atheists, Humanists and Sceptics tend to believe in.

Does that then mean Muslims have a case too, in denouncing violence in the name of Islam as antithetical to Islam, the religion of peace? No, because the claim that Islam is the religion of peace only applies when Muslims ignore the violent and warlike aspects of Islam.

If you’re an atheist bent on violence you have to depart from the values usually subscribed to by Atheists, New Atheists, Humanists and Sceptics.

If you’re a Muslim bent on violence you can find justification for it in your holy texts.

Do you see the difference? #‎justasking‬.

Here’s a more rational assessment, from Maajid Nawaz. A lesson for Mehdi Hasan.

MaajidNawazOnChapelHill

Josephus on Christianity Is Hearsay

There are a bunch of people building reputations on the historicity of Jesus – whether the man Jesus existed, what he did, what he claimed to do.

Christians want, no, need, Jesus to be a real mortal man, at least, because they depend on that in order to make their next set of claims about his divinity, his miracles, and most of all, the resurrection.

Non-Christian scholars go to great lengths to show not only that the information we have a bout Jesus is unreliable, but in some cases it is so flawed they think he didn’t even exist.

In history it really helps make your case if there are some independent sources that contribute facts to a story to give us some confidence in the story. One area where Christian scholars fail so badly it amounts to professional dishonesty is regard this independent evidence claim.

One source in particular can be relied upon to be behind most claims you hear from Christians if they start telling you there’s ‘plenty’ (a vague often used term) of evidence for the resurrection. When you look at their sources they tend to go something like this:

1 – Many who are not scholars will point to William Lane Craig, and may even give links to his site and some of the pages where he tells us there are ‘plenty’ of independent sources.

2 – When you go to William Lane Craig you will see that he offers Josephus, and Pliny and Tacitus. But the go-to guy in the end is Josephus.

3 – When you’ve gone down this rabbit whole with the Christian and given your reasons why this isn’t independent evidence, they’ll offer some other Christian scholars, who, they assure you, will provide categorical evidence for the resurrection. Of course these sources never do. But where they do claim to be offering evidence you can bet your shirt on it that they will either point to some other source, like William Lane Craig again, or will cite Josephus themselves.

4 – Some Christians will actually try to cite just Josephus – but usually it’s not Josephus directly that they cite but some description of what Josephus contains along with some explanation of why it’s so good. But this is not actually looking at the content of Josephus.

If you’re not familiar with Josephus you could start here: Wikipedia on Josephus

Remember, Josephus was a Jew, captured by Rome, and writing from Rome. Here’s a brief summary with links: Jewish Virtual Library on Josephus. And from there note this: “However, because of Josephus’ proclivity to depend on hearsay and legend, scholars are never sure what to accept as fact.”

Or, you could try this source: Bible Study Tools on Josephus.

Scholarly Opinion on the Reliability Of Extant Josephus Texts

One of the controversies over what is currently available is the extent to which current transcripts are genuine copies of what Josephus actually wrote, or whether they have been modified by Christians to tell a better story. This is the stuff of historical scholarly work – which I’m not qualified to judge, but which has, of course, its Christian non-Christian perspectives.

I am specifically avoiding this angle, because I don’t think it is necessary in order to make my point. And, I have to say, both the Christian and non-Christian scholars seem to be on thin ice. You can judge for your self by reading them – I bet you’ll soon become bored with the detail that makes no difference.

Josephus as Hearsay

I appreciate the historical interests in these old texts, but in the case against Christianity the most obvious criticism of Josephus and other ‘independent’ sources is that they are nothing more than hearsay. Josephus is not evidence for Jesus at all.

At best, if we ignore the controversy of the reliability of the extant texts, then it is nothing more than a report of what Christians were saying they believed.

Whether it’s what Christians reported directly to Josephus, or what Josephus picked up from non-Christian sources telling what Christians were saying, is unknown.

The same is true of course when a Christian source is provided. If a non-Christian hears some stories about Christ, thinks it all sounds pretty good, and becomes a Christian, then this is now a biased Christian source that is peddling what are basically his unreliable sources that made him Christian in the first place.

And so it goes even today.

History Hangs on Threads

This is a problem for history generally. But in most respects it’s unimportant.

I don’t know of anyone today living their lives in such a way that depends categorically on the truth of whether Nero fiddled as Rome burned. If one believed that legend, then came across information that debunks it, it wouldn’t be the end of your world. One has only to say, “Oh well, I was wrong about that.”

Some historical researchers could build academic careers on something that is later debunked. And the same is true in science. But once the facts are establish there’s no hiding place. It may involve the consumption of some humble pie, but then any scholar or researcher worth their salt would get the pie out, and after a hearty meal they’d get on with using the new data.

The Christian Life Based on Hearsay

But in the case of Christianity people build careers and whole lives on the claim that Jesus was God (ignoring theological quibbles on that score) and that he died to save us. All based on nothing better than hearsay.

You go to church, pray to God and Jesus Christ. Maybe you’re a Roman Catholic and you really believe that when the wafer is blessed it turns into the literal body of Christ. Maybe you’re a ‘sophisticated’ theologian and don’t by any of the high church stuff, but still believe in Jesus Christ, Son of God, and the resurrection.

It’s based entirely on hearsay? Yes!

The words of Jesus? Put into his mouth entirely by the writers of the Gospels. There is zero evidence Jesus said any of it. When reported in the Gospels some time after the death of Jesus (again, we’re not even demanding proof the mortal man existed here) then it is nothing more than hearsay.

It is no less hearsay than anything a Muslim might claim about Mohammed. Muslims can even make a better claim to the historicity of Mohammed – though of course what Mohammed’s followers tell us Mohammed was told by Gabriel, who was instructed by Allah, is several levels of hearsay too.

I don’t think enough is made of this. Christianity is a religion based entirely on hearsay. But Josephus is a Christian trump card they are allowed to get away with far too often.

Religious Language Frustrates Michael Nugent

Michael Nugent tries to grasp and challenge the meaning of the mystical words of Swami Purnananda as the latter explains something or other about his beliefs.

I’ve always been fascinated by how well artists capture moving water. I remember visiting Niagara Falls, and I tried to pick out and follow a pattern in the flow of water as it went over the edge – no sooner had I selected one fast moving ripple to examine its form and it was gone, and the water just kept on coming. Swami Purnananda’s meaningless words just keep on coming, and Michael Nugent has barely a moment to grasp each one and impart some sense onto it.

Swami Purnananda, “I frame in poetic language admittedly”

And there lies the problem of the whole of religious mysticism.

If you keep telling yourself this stuff enough the brain comes to believe it. The brain builds a contextually consistent and eventually familiar conceptual framework where all this stuff ties together and forms some ‘holistic’ explanation that has ephemeral ties to the real word through a careful selection of words – and it helps here if the words are vague or of multiple meanings so they are protected from literal evidential analysis. The whole system can then stand alone, in the brain, detached from empirical scrutiny.

I guess that’s why it takes so long to become a mystic or a priest. Until the brain is thoroughly programmed in this poetic language the brain’s owner is a struggling novice.

In a way I think it’s very much like learning some difficult scientific or mathematical concept. I know from experience that I’ve struggled to really ‘get it’ some times. Evolution, thermodynamics – there are many topics which can seem difficult to grasp until you have many of the bits pinned down, then it all clicks and you get it. I can see why those without a lot of background can find evolution and thermodynamics and other scientific ideas so incredible, and why they look for other explanations.

The scientific conceptual systems succeed or fail on the extent to which they stand up to the empirical challenge. Not so religion.

It doesn’t seem to matter to many people that the religious mystical stuff isn’t grounded in empirical evidence, or that it doesn’t actually work at doing anything – outside all the psychological benefits they find in their communities of common belief. Of course they have to ignore as much as possible how easily such unsupported beliefs can lead to atrocities in the real world; and where they can they blame those outcomes on something else. Many must be finding that deflection tough to sustain in the face of the proclaimed faith of ISIS – though even some atheists still try valiantly to excuse religious belief of being open to any interpretation at all.

Deepities indeed, as was pointed out in an early comment on Michael Nugent’s blog.

Ophelia Benson’s Medicine

There’s some serious hypocrisy flying around some quarters of the Free Thought Blogs. Ophelia Benson, PZ Myers and others are fighters for social justice, the feminist cause and the battle against sexual abuse and rape, which can only be applauded, and would be, were it not for their methods.

Michael Nugent has posted another clarification of his position on these matters. He has become the target for their rhetoric and misrepresentation, because he has objected to their rhetoric and misrepresentation when it has been directed at others, such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Michael Shermer. It seems ‘any critic of mine is a friend of my enemies and therefore an enemy of mine’.

[UPDATE – while writing this I see that Nugent has another post up covering the fact that Myers has not responded to Nugent’s call for an apology, after Myers said Nugent defends rapists.]

I’ve covered some of this before, specifically about how Dawkins is being misrepresented, and on the hypocrisy of Myers complaining about the ill-considered rhetoric of Dawkins and yet engaging in similar ill-consideration himself that resulted in misrepresentations of Dawkins. There I also pointed to Michael Nugent’s response to it all as one of the only sane assessments on the matter. And it’s as a result of Nugent’s criticisms there that Ophelia Benson continued her attack on Nugent, and had Adam Lee jumping in with both feet – firmly in his mouth. And Nugent responds again, with restraint and calm reason.

And it goes around some more, and Nugent finds he has to make yet another clarification of the misrepresentations of him.

You’ll notice that Nugent’s posts are very specific in addressing his attackers, very calm and considered, and necessarily spell out, repeatedly, in great detail, where they are going wrong. Some comments on his posts have suggested he give up and ignore the attacks, rather than give them air time. There’s always the danger that he’ll suffer the TL;DR short attention span response. But others, I think rightly, are supportive of Nugent’s efforts as being worth the trouble. The smears and misrepresentations should be documented in this manner, for the record.

The hypocrisy of Benson, Myers and others of the #FTBullies extends to their unwillingness to criticise the many viscous followers they have on their blogs. There are some clearly false accusations flying around about Dawkins and Harris, and latterly Nugent, such as calling them misogynists, or even supporters of rapists. In Nugent’s case Myers seems to have been pretty clear that he considers Nuget a defender of rapists that comment on Nugent’s blog, and holds Nugent responsible for that in some way; were it true in any case – and Myers offers no evidence of this claim.

Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen Myers or Benson comment on their own blogs with something like, “OK guys, I’m criticising Dawkins and Harris for careless or even harmful rhetoric. Let’s not get into that ourselves.” Instead, they continue with the misrepresentations, and allow the more extreme of their followers to jump to the nastier conclusions on their behalf [UPDATE: except in the latest Twitter outburst Myers is responsible for all his own work].

I thought it might be helpful to Myers, Benson and Lee and others engaged in these campaigns against Dawkins, Harris and Nugent, if I quoted from a book a read some time ago. It was aimed at the sloppy thinking and failure to search for the truth, in favour of one’s emotive commitments, and directed generally against the religious, New Agers and post-modern relativists and other pedallers of flim-flam [h/t Pinker]. I’ve inserted and emphasised where I think Benson and co. might not get the message from the original.

Confusion and obfuscation are arguably the best way to go. Obfuscation is legal, it’s easy, there’s always an abundant supply and it often does the trick. The more unclear it is exactly what one is arguing, the more trouble one’s opponents will have in refuting one’s claims.

And this is why Nugent’s posts are increasingly detailed in refuting the charges from Myers et al.

Asking unanswerable questions is an inconclusive but useful tactic. … The fact that no one can answer such questions is taken by the pure of heart and limpid of mind to entail divine [self-appointed] explanation. The fact that such explanation allows the questions to be asked all over again seems not to trouble the divinely [self-appointedly] inclined.

In fact, the contortions are a giveaway not only that the explanation is not the right one, but that something is badly wrong with the method of generating the explanation, that things are back to front [mirroring the Vatican?], that the enquirer has started, not with a desire to produce an explanation, but with the desire to produce a particular explanation, or a particular kind of explanation.

What should trump what? Should rational enquiry, sound evidence, norms of accuracy, logical inference trump human needs, desires, fears, hopes? Or should our wishes and beliefs, politics and morality, dreams and visions be allowed to shape our decisions about what constitutes good evidence, what criteria determine whether an explanation is supported by evidence or not, what is admissible and what isn’t?

The truth is important to us, but so are our needs and desires and hopes and fears. Without them we wouldn’t even recognise ourselves. Without them, we think, we would merely be something like an adding machine. An adding machine can get at the truth, given the right input, but it doesn’t care. We want the truth but we also want to care – wanting the truth is indeed inseparable from caring. We want it, we care about it, it matters, and so do various other things we want and care about, some of which are threatened by the truth. … But we have to choose. … If we’ve never bothered to decide that truth matters, and that it shouldn’t be subject to our wishes – that, in short, wishful thinking [that everyone should agree with our gross characterisations] is bad thinking – then we are likely to be far less aware of the tension. We simply allow ourselves, without much worry or reflection, to assume that the way humans want the world to be is the way the world is [populated by privileged old white male misogynists, as we see it], more or less by definition – and endemic confusion and muddle [and the need for endless clarification] is the result.

Religion and related modes of thinking such as New Age, Wicca, paganism, the vaguely named ‘spirituality’, [and the social justice wars?] are where this outcome is most obvious. Public discourse features talk of [god stuff, or charges of rape] … without apparently stopping to notice that there may be reasons to prefer true beliefs rather than false ones.

What reasons? There are many. One is truth is something of an all-or-nothing proposition. It is intimately related to concepts such as consistency, thoroughness, universal applicability, and the like. If one decides that truth doesn’t matter in one area what is to prevent one deciding it doesn’t matter in any, in all?

Our internal private thoughts might not matter at all. … But how we influence each other, how we teach – by writing, by journalism, by talking on the radio, on platforms, in churches, in mosques, in classrooms, [how we use blogs to espouse rape claims rather than official channels] – it does matter. If we are going to influence people, it’s important we get it right.

If we minimize true facts that we dislike too often, we may lose sight of the fact that it is our reaction and degree of attention that is subject to our wills, and start to think that the facts themselves are subject to our wills. But on the whole they’re not.

But then this …

There are fields where indifference to truth is no handicap – advertising, PR, …, lobbying, marketing, In fact there are whole large, well paid, high status areas of the economy where truth-scepticism, wishful thinking, fantasy, suspension of disbelief, deletion of the boundary between dreams and reality, are not only not a handicap, but essential to the enterprise. … We need our dreams and stories, our imaginaries. They are good for us. We need the cognitive rest from confronting reality all day, we need to be able to imagine alternatives, we need the pleasure of fantasy. But we also need to hang on to our awareness of the difference between dreams and reality.

No! Some of these, advertising, PR, lobbying, marketing – and blogging unsubstantiated rape claims and naming as perpetrators people who have had no recourse to justice – are precisely the areas where we are seeing no handicap to the perpetrators of lies, but where the wider social handicap is far greater.

There is a profound irony in the situation [super fucking irony in this case] – in postmodernist epistemic relativism. It is thought to be, and often touted as, emancipatory. It is supposed to set us all free: free from all those coercive repressive restrictive hegemonic totalizing old ideas. From white male western reason and science, from the requirement to heed the boundary between science and pseudo science, from the need to offer genuine evidence for our versions of history, from scholars who point out we have our facts wrong. … Take away reasoned argument and the requirement for reference to evidence – by discrediting them via deconstruction and rhetoric, via scare quotes and mocking capital letters, and what can be left other than force of one kind or another? … This is emancipatory? Not in our view. It is not emancipatory because it helps emotive rhetoric to prevail over reason and evidence, which means it helps falsehood prevail over truth.

The book? “Why Truth Matters” – Ophelia Benson, Jeremy Stangroom.

Super fucking irony.

John Gray’s Poor Thinking on Dawkins

For a philosopher that likes to point out the nuances of the philosophy he thinks Dawkins misses out on, Gray is awfully sloppy with his own thinking – sloppy or malicious, possibly both.

“The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins – His atheism is its own kind of narrow religion”

In what way is Dawkins close minded? Closed to ideas that lack evidence to support them, for as long as they lack evidence, but open minded enough to consider evidence when presented? Is that so bad? In what way is the atheism of Dawkins different from the atheism of Gray? Does Gray hold to some greater open mindedness to the possibility of some intelligent entity creator than does Dawkins when he expresses his views?

When Gray quotes Dawkins from The Selfish Gene wondering if visiting aliens might wonder if humans are intelligent enough to notice Evolution at work, Gray seems to get the idea that Dawkins is some kind of supremacist.

“There is his equation of superiority with cleverness: the visiting aliens are more advanced creatures than humans because they are smarter and know more than humans do.”

One has to wonder by what means Gray thinks some alternative, ‘less’ intelligent, aliens might have got here to do the observing. I would expect, as a first approximation, that any aliens clever enouch to reach us across the vastness of open space have figured out some pretty damned clever technology for doing so.

So, yes, there is a sense in which cleverness is superior – superior to dumbness. Perhaps Gray thinks we should promote philosophy professors based on lack of cleverness, stupidity. Perhaps they did at the London School of Economics and Political Science when Gray was there. Thay might explain some things.

“The theory of evolution by natural selection is treated not as a fallible theory—the best account we have so far of how life emerged and developed — but as an unalterable truth, which has been revealed to a single individual of transcendent genius. There cannot be much doubt that Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist.”

This really is grossly sloppy research by some dumb ass philosopher. Of course evolutionary theory is fallible in many respects, as are all theories in science. And yes it’s the best we have yet. But if Gray would like to offer some hint at were it is so wrong that there is much chance of its basic principles being overthrown by some future theory he’s welcome to illustrate them.

And yes, there can be much doubt that “Dawkins sees himself as a Darwin-like figure, propagating the revelation that came to the Victorian naturalist” in any crude and derogatory sense that this statement from Gray implies. Is Dawkins an evangelist for evolution over crack-pot creationism? Sure he is. No doubt Gray has lauded the benefits of philosophy in his time. Pity he doesn’t practice in this piece some of the critical thinking philosophy is supposed to encourage.

“Among these traits, it is Dawkins’s identification with Darwin that is most incongruous. No two minds could be less alike than those of the great nineteenth-century scientist and the latter-day evangelist for atheism. Hesitant, doubtful, and often painfully perplexed, …”

Incongruous, because Darwin and Dawkins have some personality differences? Incongruous because Dawkins has the wealth of genetics to back up his perspective on the reliability of evolution that Darwin didn’t? Well, what would you expect? Of course they were different in many ways, and it’s plain stupid to try to turn the emulative admiration Dawkins has for Darwin into supposing Dawkins imagines himself to actually be the Darwin of his day. Of course Darwin was more hesitant and perplexed by the ideas he was formulating while now Dawkins is more confident that Darwin was on the right track.

“… Darwin understood science as an empirical investigation in which truth is never self-evident and theories are always provisional.”

And Gray’s dishonest scuralous implication is that Dawkins doesn’t understand that – when Dawkins expresses that opinion regularly. You only have to listen to Dawkins rather than just cherry picking what you like, or what you heard someone else report, in order to see the misrepresentation going on here.

“If science, for Darwin, was a method of inquiry that enabled him to edge tentatively and humbly toward the truth, for Dawkins, science is an unquestioned view of the world.”

Is it any wonder so many of us dispair at the state of philosophy when philosophers like Gray come out with such bullshit. The fact of the matter is that science is not the unquestioned view of the world, but the view questioned by scientists all the time. That’s what it is to do science – to question one’s views of the world. When one then comes up with some pretty good answers that doesn’t turn you suddenly into some absolutist for science dogma, though that’s how science is often presented when one wants to attack a sientist.

I think Gray is mistaking the view of science that Dawkins and others have by comparing it to their view of ‘other ways of knowing’, which turn out to be unreliable flim flam. Maybe it’s the utter inadequacy of religion and philosophy to tell us anything useful about the world, such that when Dawkins points that out Gray sees him claiming instead that science is perfect: “Oh, our philosophy and theology is hopeless is it? And I suppose you think your science is perfect!”

“The Victorians are often mocked for their supposed certainties, when in fact many of them (Darwin not least) were beset by anxieties and uncertainties. Dawkins, by contrast, seems never to doubt for a moment the capacity of the human mind — his own, at any rate—to resolve questions that previous generations have found insoluble.”

The irony leaps out from the pages of the New Republic! Just as many cautious tentative Victorian scientists were misunderstood for claiming certainty, so here we have Gray misunderstanding Dawkins. How can a professional philosopher make such glaring errors of thought? Read Dawkins, Mr Gray. Or just play a few of his short video clips on YouTube. You’ll see he prefaces and loads much of what he says with contingency. Again, you are perhaps mistaking his derision of ‘other ways of knowing’ for some claim that scence is perfrect. See the distinction?

Or, perhaps read someone with a better appreciation of Dawkins having actually met the man. This is Andrew Anthony, “There’s a smoothness to the way he carries himself – a touch of the Nigel Havers – that could no doubt be construed as an arrogance befitting his intellectual status, but in conversation he is restrained, even hesitant, and faultlessly modest throughout our interview.” – My emphasis, my way of spelling out Gray’s error.

Gray covers the period of Dawkins growing up in what was the dying stages of Britain’s colonial Africa, and his days at school. Gray picks up on how Dawkins can’t remember having any empathetic feelings for a bullied boy at school. And Gray leaps on this and extrapolates to how Dawkins bullies the religious now.

Except Gray, as with many critics of Dawkins, totally scews it up. He gets it dead wrong. Dawkins does not bully the religious by any stretch of the imagination – except if you stretch your imagination so far you event your own caricature of Dawkins that is nothing like the man.

When you see Dawkins rail against the most obnoxious of theists that are persecuting homosexuals, promoting creationism, opposing democracy, abusing children, then if this is your sole point of reference it’s easy to see how you can get it so wrong. But Gray is supposed to be a sharp thinker, a philosopher. Where’s his research?

Perhaps Gray could learn something from that one article and its comments. But there’s plenty more. You only have to actually listen to Dawkins, or not read his works looking for your own version of what you think he says. Or simply Google for the actual opinions of Dawkins. Read his website. I’m afraid Gray has perhaps done too little research into the man whose biography he is critiquing, or perhaps has a predetermined agenda and is taking this opportunity to air it. It’s not difficult to find nearly every piece by Dawkins is the antithesis of the caricature Gray is presenting.

“Exactly how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar will probably never be known.”

More failed research.

So what did turn Dawkins into an anti-religious missionary, as opposed to an ‘old atheist’? Well, 9/11 played a big part in that, as we can see here in a copy of a piece from the Guardian. And from there we have The God delusion. But long before that he was objecting to the Creationist opposition to evolution. And, of course, he was charged with the job promoting science, when from 1995 to 2008 Richard Dawkins was the Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. It doesn’t take much research to have a fair stab at “how Dawkins became the anti-religious missionary with whom we are familiar” – something Gray seems totally incapable of trying.

“From what he writes here, I doubt he knows himself.”

Then, Mr Gray, you clearly haven’t read very much of what he writes. Or you’ve been mallisciously selective.

“At no point has Dawkins thrown off his Christian inheritance. Instead, emptying the faith he was taught of its transcendental content, he became a neo-Christian evangelist. A more inquiring mind would have noticed at some point that religion comes in a great many varieties, with belief in a creator god figuring in only a few of the world’s faiths and most having no interest in proselytizing. It is only against the background of a certain kind of monotheism that Dawkins’s evangelical atheism makes any sense.”

This is just plain dumb. I mean really dumb. Being ‘evangelicaal’ is merely to express a keenness for something one believes in, to the point of thinking it worth promoting actively, stridently if you will. But hold on …

“In turning away from the milk-and-water Anglicanism in which he had been reared…”

If his ‘evangelical’ nature is grounded in his Christianity, and yet his Christianity was ‘milk-and-water Anglicanism’, Gray’s appraisal doesn’t really add up. You are contradicting yourself, Mr Gray. Unforgivable for a philosopher endowed with the critical thinking philosophy offers, surely.

The real difference between being an outspoken atheist and an evangelical Christian, is that the latter has no grounds in evidence upon which to base his case, while the former, being claims no more that a failure to be convinced of Christianity or other religions in the light of no positive evidence to support them. So, the stridency of Dawkins to me seems more like that of the mystified Brian in Python’s Life of Brian, addressing the throng of people who mistake him for a messiah:

Brian, “Please, please listen. I’ve got one or two things to say. Look. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t need to follow me. You don’t need to follow anybody. You’ve got to think for yourselves. You’re all individuals. You’re all different. You’ve all got to work it out for yourselves. Don’t let anyone tell you what to do.”

And when Brian says, “You’re all different” and one of the crowd comically responds “I’m not”, I can’t help but think of the comic hapless Gray uttering a futile self-contradiction.

A couple of other ironies here. The crowd in this scene are the religious, looking to Brian. Of course Dawkins is not looked to as the messiah by the religious (though often mistaken for the anti-Christ) or by atheists. The stridency of Dawkins is that of Brian telling the religious to think for themselves instead of following holy preachers and silly books. The other irony is that this is also how many religious people, and some atheists, like PZ Myers and crew, see those of us who are atheists that defend Dawkins against these stupid attacks. We don’t follow Dawkins in the sense they imply; but as with any good thinker it’s worth taking note of what they say. And it’s worth pointing out when they are misrepresented – and Gray isn’t on novel ground here; he merely echoes the same tripe that we get from others.

“Even more remarkable is Dawkins’s inveterate literal-mindedness.”

Gray goes on to agree with Dawkins that some Christians, as Dawkins says, believe in original sin. But Gray here is lamenting the fact that Dawkins observes this in Christianity as if gray thinks Dawkins believes it himself.

Gray tries to put Dawkins right – but about something for which Dawkins was never wrong, because Dawkins never professed it:

“Even so, it [original sin] is an idea that contains a vital truth: evil is not error, a mistake of the mind, a failure of understanding that can be corrected by smarter thinking. It is something deeper and more constitutive of human life itself. The capacity and propensity for destruction goes with being human. One does not have to be religious to acknowledge this dark fact.”

Dawkins is an evolutionary biologists. Does Gray really think this is the inate nastiness of life that Dawkins is railing against? What a straw man to pull out of one’s ass. Dawkins is arguing against the original sin of Christianity, not the varied and sometimes unpleasant behavioural tendencies of humans.

“As an atheist myself, it is a view I find no difficulty in sharing.”

And neither would Dawkins. But that perspective on innate biologically determined human tendencies isn’t original sin, is it. The Gray analogy is that both Christians and atheists agree humans sometimes do bad things to each other; but it’s their explanations that are so different that makes the criticism of Original Sin justified, while still allowing us atheists to think there are other reasons for our occasional nastiness. Nothing that Gray has said on this amounts to any valid criticism of Dawkins at all, though Gray is passing it of as if it is.

“Quite apart from the substance of the idea, there is no reason to suppose that the Genesis myth to which Dawkins refers was meant literally.”

Yet more utter bollocks. In the week in which the current and maybe most liberal of recent Popes professes belief in actual angels it is totally ridiculous of sophisticated theologians and accommodationist atheists like Gray to play this game of pretending that hardly any of the religious believe the literal interpretation of biblical bollocks. Many do. And many will skirt around the subject to duplicitous degrees to avoid owning it.

“Coarse and tendentious atheists of the Dawkins variety prefer to overlook the vast traditions of figurative and allegorical interpretations with which believers have read Scripture.”

This is yet more nonsense. Of course Dawkins criticises the literalist. And the allegorists too. And all shades in between. Maybe the reason you see Dawkins objecting to Biblical Literalism so often is that he’s arguing with Biblical Literalists of varying degrees. Even in debate with the previous Arch Bishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, he tried to pin him down on issues like the resurrection, it is typical of Williams to skirt around it, but you can bet plenty of Christians believe it is literally true. Instead of addressing that duplicity Gray picks on what is most likely the least popular literal interpretation of the bible, the six days of genesis. But still, the Pope believes in Adam and Eve. Of course Dawkins is leteralist when addressing literalists.

Gray points us to Augustine and Philo of Alexandria as non-literalists. But their theological interpretations of their beliefs are not universal. So, did Augustine think the resurrection didn’t really happen? Does Augustine believe there is no actual literal God? This sophisticated theology that tries to explain away religious nonsense doesn’t mean that there are no literalists in other respects that Dawkins cannot address.

Has Gray never heard of the No True Scotsman fallacy? Surely he has. So why is he playing that hand here?

“In treating religion as a set of factual propositions, Dawkins is mimicking Christianity at its most fundamentalist.”

Hold on. If Christians are not the literalists that Gray says Dawkins is mistaking them for, then how can he be mimicking a ‘factual’ literalist Christianity? Gray doesn’t make sense. He’s losing sight of his own arguments in his commitment to having a go at Dawkins.

Gray moves on to Dawkins and memes.

“There are many difficulties in talk of memes, including how they are to be identified. Is Romanticism a meme? Is the idea of evolution itself a meme, jumping unbidden from brain to brain? My suspicion is that the entire “theory” amounts to not much more than a misplaced metaphor.”

And that use of meme as metaphor is pretty much where Dawkins leaves it too. But it’s a word where the spread of morphology through genes is an analogue for the spread of behaviours through ideas as memes. It’s a fair metaphor. It doesn’t have to be an established scientific theory to be useful. Come on, Mr Gray, you’re a philosopher, a member of a discipline renowned for making up bollocks and presenting it as theory.

“The larger problem is that a meme-based Darwinian account of religion is at odds with Dawkins’s assault on religion as a type of intellectual error. If Darwinian evolution applies to religion, then religion must have some evolutionary value.”

No it isn’t at odds. It’s just multiple perspectives. And it need not have evolutionary value if it’s a spandrel. The propensity to see agency were there is none may indeed have had some benefit – better safe than sorry. But it’s quite feasible that an evolved behaviour can morph under social thinking into some unhelpful monstrosity. I guess Gray doesn’t have any evolutionary explanation for tight jeans, pipe smoking, Boy Scouts or any other human concoction. But there they are.

“But in that case there is a tension between naturalism (the study of humans and other animals as organisms in the natural world) and the rationalist belief that the human mind can rid itself of error and illusion through a process of critical reasoning.”

Not so. The human mind as a behavioural process of a physical brain is still subject to cause and effect of the natural world. My brain is caused to find religious belief an error of thinking, by my brain’s caused modelling of the thinking process under empiricism. That effect in turn causes my brain to engage in critical thinking in order to try to persuade believers they are wrong. If my verbal behaviour, as received by a believing brain causes that believing brain to adopt a different perspective then that believing brain may become a non-believing brain. All that is a natural process of mechanistic human brains. And that my brain uses the meme metaphor for religion and sees it as an error does not make any of that inconsistent. Many philosophers simply can’t dig deep enough into determinism and physicalism to follow where they lead.

“To be sure, Dawkins and those who think like him will object that evolutionary theory tells us how we got where we are, but does not preclude our taking charge of ourselves from here on.”

Correct. We are caused to think we are in charge of ourselves. Free will is an illusion.

“If we “are” survival machines, it is unclear how “we” can decide anything. “

Because we have brains that are somewhat isolated from our environment but ultimately caused by it to be what we are. The term ‘decide’ relates to the logical process of decision. A computer makes decisions. It is programmed to do so. But with non-deterministic (to us and it) inputs it’s decisions can lead to unexpected novel outcomes. So decision making is really another perspective on causal systems. The decision making of a computer does consists at its most basic as an interaction of electrons and ions in electronic devices. That of a brain consists of the interaction of neurons.

“The idea of free will, after all, comes from religion and not from science.”

Mostly, that’s true. The dualist free will of the soul or mind is illusory, under naturalism. There’s no evidence of any spooky stuff that can bypass the causal nature of the matter of the brain.

“Science may give us the unvarnished truth — or some of it — about our species. Part of that truth may prove to be that humans are not and can never be rational animals.”

I disagree. Rationality is a label we give to the mechanistic processing of data that goes on in a human mind – the decision making. It is basically causal elements interacting.

“Religion may be an illusion, but that does not mean science can dispel it.”

Sloppy writing from a philosopher again. Religion is not an illusion. Religion is an actual human social behavioural phenomenon that includes an aspect of those brains believing things to be true for which there is no evidence. Science does dispel it, sufficiently, because of the lack of evidence for it. Typical: a philosopher allows his mind to coalesce science’s lack of supporting evidence for religious claims into his understanding of logical disproof of religious belief.

“On the contrary, science may well show that religion cannot be eradicated from the human mind. Unsurprisingly, this is a possibility that Dawkins never explores.”

First sentence is right, in that science might show that religion cannot be eradicated, by natural evolutionary means. Then again it might not show that at all. It might show, had we access to similar minds to ours but evolved independently, that indeed it is possible to not have religious belief. And it might be possible to show (I would expect it is possible) that religous belief could be eradicated from brains by artificial means.

The second sentence is Gray talking out of his ass again. Of course Dawkins has considered this.

“For all his fervent enthusiasm for science, Dawkins shows very little interest in asking what scientific knowledge is or how it comes to be possible.”

Dawkins does address this sometimes, but as far as I can tell gives little significance to it. He’s not specifically a philosopher of science, so perhaps it doesn’t get his dander up the way many problems of religion do – i.e. evolution denialism.

“There are many philosophies of science. Among them is empiricism, which maintains that scientific knowledge extends only so far as observation and experiment can reach; realism, which holds that science can give an account of parts of the world that can never be observed; irrealism, according to which there is no one truth of things to which scientific theories approximate; and pragmatism, which views science theories as useful tools for organizing and controlling experience. If he is aware of these divergent philosophies, Dawkins never discusses them. His attitude to science is that of a practitioner who does not need to bother with philosophical questions.”

The problem is that some of these philosophical details are no more than hair splitting in the absence of any evidence to favour any of them specifically. Rather, each and all of them can lead to material naturalism and physicalism. There’s simply no reason to keep re-hashing this stuff, though I appreciate that philosophers earn their money by doing just that.

“It is worth noting, therefore, that it is not as a practicing scientist that Dawkins has produced his assaults against religion. As he makes clear in this memoir, he gave up active research in the 1970s when he left his crickets behind and began to write The Selfish Gene. Ever since, he has written as an ideologue of scientism, the positivistic creed according to which science is the only source of knowledge and the key to human liberation.”

I’m losing count of the misrepresentation in this awful piece by Gray. Let’s get it straight.

Science is the broader label for a group of human activities that adopt the very same faculties that all humans have: reason and evidence, observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it. This is empiricism. A simpler definition of empiricism allows only the sensory experience, but that alone is not what differentiates human brains from other brains. It’s our wider empiricism: observing and interacting with the world and reasoning about it.

On empiricism as an inclusive term for reason and experience: brain neurons and sensory and motor neurons have much in common. The empirical nature of the peripheral neurons isn’t that different from brain neurons. Brain neurons engage in empirical interaction with other brain neurons. There is no magical ‘thinking stuff’ beyond this that we are aware of. Physicalism rules, by default, for lack of evidence for anything else. Get over it.

This is what all humans do. Science is no more than making the effort to do that better, more reliably. The thing is, empiricism is all we have. It IS the only way of knowing, that we know of. There are no other ways of knowing. Science uses the usual human processes and adds method and rigour. That’s the distinction. So, within our one way of knowing, science is the best of it, when it comes to finding out how the world works. The imagination of fantasy may be very enjoyable – and may even be used in science to inspire ideas: many science fiction ideas become scientific goals. But when fantasy is used to proclaim a reality, without any supporting evidence, as in religion, and often in philosophy, then yes, science is much better.

I appreciate Gray has latched onto this Scientism trope. But it really is a poor show for a philosopher not to do the work to find out how humans acquire knowledge.

“If religion comes in many varieties, so too does atheism. Dawkins takes for granted that being an atheist goes with having liberal values (with the possible exception of tolerance).”

Wrong again. Dawkins criticises various ideologies that include a rejection of gods, such as the communist based ideologies of Stalin, Mao and others. Where does Gray get the idea that Dawkins thinks all atheists have liberal values? Is is when Dawkins mentions the liberal values of atheists in the liberal atheist sub-group? Such a misrepresentation would be like accusing the Pope of thinking all Christians are Roman Catholics when he addresses Roman Catholic Christians as Christians. This is just plain stupid from Gray.

“But there is no necessary connection between atheism and hostility to religion, as some of the great Victorian unbelievers understood.”

Yes, we know that already. Dawkins also criticises accommodationist atheists that make excuses for religions.

“One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure.”

Try asking Dawkins, Mr Gray.

“”I am not a good observer,” he [Dawkins] writes modestly. He is referring to his observations of animals and plants, but his weakness applies more obviously in the case of humans. Transfixed in wonderment at the workings of his own mind, Dawkins misses much that is of importance in human beings—himself and others.”

I disagree. He may sometimes miss the stupidity with which his plain speaking can be misunderstood and misrepresented. It may well baffle him how a philosopher such as Gray can miss so much too. But then he might figure, well, he is a philosopher.

“To the best of my recollection, I have met Dawkins only once and by chance, when we coincided at some meeting in London. It must have been in late 2001, since conversation at dinner centered around the terrorist attacks of September 11. Most of those at the table were concerned with how the West would respond: would it retaliate, and if so how? Dawkins seemed uninterested. What exercised him was that Tony Blair had invited leaders of the main religions in Britain to Downing Street to discuss the situation—but somehow omitted to ask a leader of atheism (presumably Dawkins himself) to join the gathering. There seemed no question in Dawkins’s mind that atheism as he understood it fell into the same category as the world’s faiths.”

Has it occurred to you, Mr Gray, that his dismay was really about the way in which one religiously motivated atrocity was going to be compounded by the religiosity of the Bush-Blair righteousness? What do the religious have to say on the matter than, say, someone from the British Humanists Association might not – other than colouring the whole campaign with religious platitudes of well meaning.

“In contrast, Dawkins shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings. In comparison with Pascal, a man of restless intellectual energy, Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.”

Then, Mr Gray, you really are ignorant of pretty much all of the work and public appearances of Dawkins. And that is an awful position for a philosopher, commenting on an autobiography, of someone you know so little about, and have met only once and not at all intimately enough to extract any useful information from the meeting.

It’s ironic you wonder if Dawkins is aware of how comic he appears to be, when here you are, Mr Gray, making a total buffoon of yourself demonstrating utter ignorance, of Dawkins, of science, and even of aspects of the philosophy material naturalism and empiricism as it plays out in science.

It’s a bit rich when a philosopher starts complaining about how some scientist doesn’t get some philosophical angles when the philosopher has a completely skewed view of what the scientist actually thinks and expresses, about science or philosophy.

It’s Tough Being a Secular Democratic Liberal Muslim

In response to a tweet by Maajid Nawaz.

[UPDATE: 15/11/2014: And Maajid responded – see end]

Maajid Nawaz,

I wish you well, I really do, so I hope you’ll consider this criticism.

On your specific points:

1) Islam is a religious ideology with political requirements built in. How could it not be. Any religion that contains social commentary, prescriptions and proscriptions is inherently political.

2) Sharia is a law or a guide depending on how those implementing it and/or enforcing it use it.

3) Ummah is a political bloc if those building it say it is.

4) Caliphate does mean theocracy if those building it use the Caliphate as part of government – i.e. if religion is the state religion or the religious leaders have powers that control the state, and if the religious leaders determine what religion the politicians must belong to. You know this is standard stuff in Islam, regarding what posts that can be held, what taxes are imposed on non-Muslims. Have I misunderstood? Have many Muslims misunderstood too?

Your secular democratic liberal efforts are to be greatly admired, given your unfortunate history. But if you insist on going down this “Islamism isn’t Islam” route you’ll be making a rod for your own back. While it may pander to moderate and near moderate Muslims, and even dissuade some Islamists from following that path, I feel using tactics like this may well backfire.

Religions have many varieties of sects within them, and the specific intent of the originators is so lost in history and interpretation by those that follow their lead that there is no clear definitive Islam, or Christianity or any other religion. There is no true Islam, and nobody has the authority to declare one. It’s for every religious person to declare what their religion means to them.

If you say you are a Muslim and your holy book is the Quran, I accept your word. If less secular Muslims claim they are Muslims too, I accept their word. If ISIS followers are brandishing the Quran, quoting it, praying based on its teachings, believing in Allah, then they are Muslims, and evidentially so, and I accept their word that they are, even if I like their Islam far less than yours.

In your response to a tweet you said, “your words assume there’s a ‘true’ interpretation of Islam. There’s no ‘true’ interpretation of any religion”. Well, precisely. So are there several Islams, or one? Several true ones or one true one? And who decides which is the true one, or the true many?

I support your efforts to distance moderate democratic secular Islam from ISIS and other extremist ‘Islamist’ versions of Islam, but they are all versions of Islam. Obama and Cameron may be taking your lead in this narrative, but it is a dishonest one – dishonest to reason and evidence. ISIS may not be YOUR Islam, but it is THEIR Islam. Saying that ISIS are not Islamic, or that they are not following the REAL Islam, is just playing the usual takfir word games – you are playing the ISIS game, albeit from a secular democratic liberal perspective.

I read your book, Radical, and I sympathise with your early experiences that took you on your journey, and I deeply respect the role you are trying to play for us all now. I feel you are very sincere. But when you say in your book that you must use the tactics that you learned in Hizb ut-Tahrir I think you need to be careful of the extent to which you use duplicitous language when doing that. Firing up political interest and activism is a great cause, so it would be a shame to sully it with slippery language.

I’m a secular atheist and I disagree with your religious beliefs. But here I accept, respect and support your right to hold your Islamic beliefs. I accept your claim to being a Muslim. And yet I think you are making a mistake playing this game of rejecting what others claim their beliefs to be, over who gets to name it. It’s fine to say “Their Islam is not my Islam”, and “I want a reformed secular democratic liberal Islam”. I think the latter an impossible task without a serious reform of Islam, to the point of being little more than deism – but I support your efforts in that regard.

I find it hard to imagine a ‘true’ Islam that abandons constraints on apostasy, for example, though I’d welcome such an Islam as a step in the right direction. But I think the real problem here, for you and other moderate Muslims, is this business of the inerrancy of the Quran. It contains some verses that like the Old Testament Bible are hardly suitable for modern times; but, it’s the inerrant word of God. That leaves it for anyone to interpret it in either traditional terms or modern terms, and to interpret it as they please. Reforming Islam is a mammoth task while this inerrancy claim persists. And yet if you drop it the Quran loses any power it has. That’s quite a challenge for you.

This business of interpretation is a problem for all religions. It’s not as if the ultimate authority of the Roman Catholic Church, for example, has a history of only decent and good pontifications to its name, but it is a single authority that can be held to account – and it has a lot to account for. But Islam is even more of a problem, for lacking a central authority Islam is open to all comers and all interpretations.

So, I don’t think you have a case for claiming that ISIS and Islamists generally are not Islamic. Your statements in your tweet feel very much like a fatwa: http://www.jesusandmo.net/2014/09/17/fatwa/ (In this episode I think the person of Mo is played by Maajid Nawaz, no?).

A tweet reply by you on Twitter: “right, so instead of guiding 1.5 billion Muslims to secularism gradually, we’re expecting them all just to apostatise”

That would be nice. I do appreciate what you are trying to do, and the difficulty you face. But I can see right through this abuse of words. Should I be so disrespectful to human intelligence to think that Islamist Muslims don’t see it too? Does the takfir game ever work out? Are you not simply begging to be accused of haram practice of making a false accusation? You’re the Muslim, so I’m asking you. Should I not ask followers of ISIS too? Can you not see the futility of this particular move of disavowing ISIS, as if that clears the good name of Islam?

Best wishes, and I hope you can see your way to taking a clearer route, though it may be a harder one.


Maajid Nawaz response:

There is no “correct” Islam.It is all interpretation (Ijtihād).Only secular pluralism guarantees an equal right for all clerics to interpret.